Detailed Jan/Feb 2019 trip report

Lucas writes:

First off, thanks for putting together such a wonderful guidebook (Ethiopia 7th edition). It’s one of the best I’ve ever used.

I’m writing to share some information based on my just finished 1-month journey through Ethiopia which you may find useful bearing in mind that I haven’t been using the latest edition.

Gondar

– During the 3 days of Timkat, Fasilidas’s Castle was closed to visitors. I was only alerted to it after having already bought the ticket to Fasil Ghebbi and hiring a local guide. That was a bummer.

– I was surprised to find that Day 3 of the celebrations, the day after actual Timkat, had the biggest parades and most “action” in the streets.

– For having a proper chance to see the ceremony at Fasilidas’s Pool on actual Timkat day, one should arrive before 3:30am to stand a chance of finding space on the grandstand that’s apparently reserved for tourists. I arrived at 5:15am and nobody was admitted anymore. This turned out to be my luck because I managed to get inside the walled perimeter surrounding the pool still, which offered a much more “immediate” experience and more freedom of movement, especially once the actual bathing of the masses started. It’s not for everyone though. It gets very crowded, exiting is difficult, and one is likely to get quite wet with so many people splashing water at each other from the pool. In any case, for anyone who truly wants to be in the “thick” of it, that’s the place to go.

Simien Trekking

– I had done a lot of reading online to find a recommended guide for a 4-day Simien trek. After finding one that had received multiple recommendations, I contacted him and was quoted 300$, which I also ended up paying. However, as a solo traveler I ended up getting passed on and pooled together with a dozen other independent trekkers, most of whom spent between 180-240$ for the exact same program. Bottom-line, it’s best to shop locally and last-minute. I didn’t end up going with the recommended guide in the end and paid more for unnecessarily arranging the trek before arriving.

– I was assured sleeping bags would be provided for the cold nights. That was the case, though most were damaged, had holes, or the zippers didn’t work. Those of the group who camped instead of staying inside the lodges suffered badly.

– We were provided with only two litres of water per person per day, which was far too little considering the distances we walked every day (Step Counter app on my phone stated 19km on Day 3). It’s imperative to clarify how much water will be provided, and insist on receiving it.

– Arguments broke out amongst the trekkers about if and how much to tip. Some argued tipping was not customary in Ethiopia, so nothing should be given. Others were only willing to offer 50 Birr for the entire group after 4 days of trekking. My Ethiopian friends in Addis later confirmed that giving a tip is well appropriate.

Lalibela

– Arriving to Lalibela one week after having attended 3 days of Timkat at Gondar, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was another Timkat happening over the course of 2 days, in honor of St-George. The character of the celebration was just like the one I had seen in Gondar a week earlier, with the highlight being the starting and end ceremonies getting staged at Bet Giyorgis. The fact that there is another “mini Timkat” happening after the main Timkat a week prior is not mentioned anywhere.

– Sunday mass is a wonderful experience at the rock churches. Best to arrive by 5:30am, or earlier. I went on weekdays as well, at around 6am. Sometimes I was able to enter the church during mass, at other times entry was barred by a guardian. I guess it’s a rather subjective assessment and decision.
Axum

– It would be good to know that one needs the general ticket to visit the slightly outlying sights such as Meskel’s Tombs as well as the Ezana Inscription. I decided to take a tuktuk to Meskel’s Tomb and then take in one sight after the other by walking back to town. The guard at Meskel’s Tomb explained I needed the ticket after I had arrived. He allowed me to visit regardless after I explained my ignorance. In any case, it’s good to know the situation in advance.

Tigray

– Went with ETT from Mekele  on a 2-day Tigray tour, for 300$ per person. The tour ran smoothly, though the subcontracted (?) guide/driver was clueless about the itinerary. When I pointed out to him what the ETT website promised, he seemed genuinely surprised as “some of the places are far from each other”.

– “Highly regarded” ETT generally made quite a disorganized impression, also during the Danakil tour. For the latter I found it’s also best to arrange the excursion last minute. Discounts are offered, or hotel accommodation included “for free” in the package.

– I later found out that it’s easy to hire a car+driver for 100$ per day from Mekele, and visit the Gheralta cluster (Abuna Yemata, Maryam & Daniel Korkor) from there, sharing the cost between the passengers. I guess the same is true for other destinations in the greater vicinity of Mekele. Meaning it’s possible to spend 25$ (if car shared by 4) for a full day tour of those locations while the cost of ETT is 150$ per person per day (arguably with hotel accommodation included, but that doesn’t justify the huge price difference). The “added value” of paying that much more is not apparent.

– Even more economical, friends managed to visit the 3 above mentioned churches by hiring a local guide and a Bajaj directly in Huawzien for very cheap. They were very happy with the arrangement and paid a fraction of what I paid with ETT.

– At Abuna Yemata, a climbing harness is now provided for added safety. The handlers expect 150Birr for using it. It should be noted that they were not aware how to correctly put it on (which side up, which side down, etc).

Harar

– The Tomb of Sheik Abadir is marked on the map as lying outside the city walls (about 200m). It’s actually inside the city walls. Clearly wrong location (Google Maps has it right)

– A visit to Koromi was easily arranged with car and driver (1200 Birr return). Encountered rock throwing kids when accessing the village. Were charged 100 Birr per person to access the village. Definitely good to go with a local person (driver/guide) to appease the locals.

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