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Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.

Journal Entry:

Monday, November 18, 2013 06:35:36

BLACK SEA, SUDANS, ETHIOPIA 2013: 13 Gondor to Lalibela, Ethiopia

Friday, November 15, 2013

The vehicle today was a Toyota four wheel drive. Leaving Gondor we passed hundreds of people with donkeys, horses or walking with heavy loads many miles to try to sell a few things in today's market. Women seem to do most of the heavy carrying, something I've mentioned to my wife on occasion. Most people are wrapped in blankets against the cold morning air.

All along the route the driver had to dodge people, donkeys, goats, sheep and horses all of whom walk down the pavement, ignoring traffic. The road started through flat country with high, treeless, solid rock mountains sticking up out of the flatness. Forests of mainly eucalyptus trees imported from Australia by Haile Selassie broke up the farmland.. Traffic was fairly light.

Once we passed the last major town the road turned to dirt, then in the mountains to a one lane dirt road with switchbacks down a high escarpment. The road was built by the colonial Italians with a large loss of life. In many places a foot off the road would mean a vertical drop of over a thousand feet. There are no guard rails, and passing an upcoming bus or truck was quite interesting!

After dropping down and then climbing back out of a couple of deep valleys we encountered road construction, where powdery dust got into everything. It would be with us for the rest of the trip, which was up one valley and down another, including through part of the World Heritage Simien mountains, where snow could be seen on high peaks which reach 4,543 m (14,901 ft) in height.

When we finally encountered pavement again, after about 8 hours of bumping along at 20 kph, we were in a drier area with cactus and camels. It was a quiet trip, as the driver spoke only a few words of English and understood even less, making conversation or questions impossible. I didn't see any directional signs but the speed limit was a largely ignored 50 kmh (30 mph).

We arrived in the clean, quiet City of Axum, population 60,000 and altitude of 2,100 meters (6,888 ft), the former capital of the powerful Axumite kingdom from 200 BC to 700 AD. It became Christian in the 4thcentury. The location of the former capital is marked by World Heritage Site Steles, or obelisks, carved from single pieces of granite rock. One that has fallen was the largest monolith ever erected by man. It is 33 meters in height (now length) and weighs over 500 tons.

The Yeha hotel was great, with a nice ground floor room separate from the main building and a good bed. It was a short walk down to the site of the Steles, where a local guide latched onto me and showed me through the area where people are already camping for coming religious events. The area near the old church, which is claimed to contain the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, has concrete pillars where ceremonies are held. Pilgrims were walking a ritualistic path through the columns, kissing each in turn. Apparently a permanent guard lives in the old church, where no one is admitted,. guarding the Ark.

My guide then took me through the main gate, where I paid admission of about $10, to the well done museum, where tours leave every few minutes in various languages. The tours are conducted by deacons of the church. The deacon then took me to the new cathedral, recently completed, where he arranged for me to photograph a 1,050 year old Ethiopian Orthodox bible.

Tomorrow's celebration is for Trinity Day, which starts about 3 AM and has a service at 5 AM. It is expected 10,000 people will attend. I'm told the pilgrims already living in humble shelters they built on the grounds are there for the big religious celebration of Timket in 2 weeks, where 100,000 people are expected. There are a lot of pilgrimages to Axum. Pilgrims and church deacons alike wear white coverings.

When I returned to the hotel there was someone from Caraval Tours, who was supposed to have been notified by the driver from Gondor of my arrival but wasn't. As what I saw was on my itinerary, they refunded my admission fee to the church and the money I gave to my impromptu guide.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

After a great sleep, while breakfasting I was joined by a black billed, black coloured toucan. They feed them. It was only a couple of feet from me, but of course the camera was in my room! The bird cries from the forest are about the same as would be expected in a tropical jungle.

The morning tour stopped at the Dunger Palace ruins from 5th century. This is said to be the 53 room palace of the Queen of Sheba when used in the 10thcentury. Legend has it that she was born in Axum and had a second palace in Yemen. We also visited the 6th century tomb of Emperor Caleb and his son, high on a hill, and the tomb of King Balthazar, supposedly one of the three kings. He brought frankincense for the birth of Jesus.

On the way to the airport we passed a number of donkeys and camels bringing firewood to the morning market. The airport is not computerized, and seating was open, however word was passed to the flight attendants about my long legs, and although I was one of the last to board they had saved a bulkhead seat for me.

The airport was quite a way from town, and en route the guide pointed out a monastery built inside a large cliff in the distance. Farm life here has not changed for many centuries, rustic ploughs are pulled by animals.

The 12th century City of Lalibela, at an altitude of 2,630 m (8,626 ft), is hot during the day and cold at night. The Tukul Lodge had a great room in a rondavel, but the kitchen, reception and bar were nothing special and the food was pretty awful. There were 2 bus tour groups there, Italian and German.. The city is in Tigray province, where the Tigrigan language is spoken.

So far in Eithiopia there as been no air conditioning in rooms or vehicles, likely because of the cool nights, but it is very hot during the day.

There are 11 World Heritage Site rock hewn monolithic churches, built by King Lalibela in the 12th century, with hundreds of stairs. When we descended to the first one it was awesome. Being inside gave an amazing feeling that is difficult to describe. They are chipped from solid volcanic rock with hammer and chisel, working from the top down. Because it is such a massive project the locals believe angles worked at night to help complete it. Some churches are four stories in height when standing at the bottom, Bet Georgis is 12 meters (40 ft) from surface to the bottom. Many churches are connected by tunnels through the rock, and there are mazes of carved drainage tunnels or deep moats. It is possible to walk completely around each church on a flat area about a meter(3 ft) wide between solid rock and the church wall. The area in front of the entrance is quite large.

My tour guide is a deacon of these churches, so was able to get easy access to all areas. We started with the lowest church, and my knees were wiped out by the time we got to the top churches. On our way back down the skies opened into a real tropical downpour. We dashed into a tunnel between churches that was open at both ends, however water soon started coursing through the tunnel. I noticed it was going through the floor of the tunnel, so we moved some rocks and found it was part of the drainage system, so by standing on large rocks we kept dry feet for awhile. However, as the intensity of the rain increased the drain couldn't keep up with the flow and our rocks went under, so we hung onto a pole across the inside of the tunnel and moved feet up on the wall. We were trapped there for nearly an hour during which time the guide sang religious songs from his childhood to me. When the rain finally slowed we dashed about a kilometre to the van. We were both soaked to the skin and freezing cold when we got to it.

Back at the hotel it was a hot shower and under the covers to thaw, as the room was also cold. As the food wasn't great and the restaurant was full of bus tourists I had a large, hot bowl of soup brought to the room with fresh local bread.