With tickets purchased the previous day for the 5:30 bus to Shire, we arrive at the bus station as requested at the dingy hour of 5am to find the gates are still closed and a crowd has already amassed. Taking a step back we’re surrounded by local women making coffee on the pavement and local men carrying long sticks wrapped in blankets of all colours and patterns. Thankfully we had allocated seats as chaos ensued once the gates finally opened at 5:45am and it was every man for himself trying to grab up any seats still vacant. Ethiopian bus law is one of the best in Africa and does not allow passengers to stand in the aisle nor does it allow buses to drive after dark. Shitty bench style seats await us and we finally depart at 6:45am with a full bus.
At 8am we’re all told to get off the bus in a muddy carpark in the cold rain with no explanation given. Turns out it’s for breakfast though having no idea for how long we’re stopped, we just eat some bananas and peanuts we’d brought with us while some local men crowd around to point at, laugh and admire Matt’s colourful lion calf tattoo (the lion being a big symbol of Ethiopia and coloured tattoos being uncommon in the highlands). Back on the bus the drive takes a turn, several turns in fact. Down a tight, steep, dirt mountain road. Hairpin after hairpin sees us exposed to breathtaking views of the valley below and the Simien Mountain range in the distance, and we’re glad the trip was done during the day.
Arriving in Shire it’s a quick bargain and bag swap and we’re in a minivan for the remaining 45 minutes. Arriving in the late afternoon, Axum, the reputed home of that famed religious icon the Ark of the Covenant, is a breath of fresh air compared to Gondar, even with the touts offering tours, tuk tuks, bicycles and yep weed. Everything seems more laid back here. After a long day of travel we head to the popular Africa Hotel (a little rundown but does the job) before heading to the first restaurant we come across at the Abnet Hotel. Branching out we try an Ethiopian favourite, Doro Wat, chicken in a spicy red sauce topped with a boiled egg. A little lean on the chicken we decide we’re not a fan of this one though the vegetarian beyanetu was great and a Zemen beer washed it down nicely.
The next day the alarm goes off at 4:30am and we contemplate hitting the snooze button for a second time. Deciding not to becomes the wisest choice as what we experienced that morning is a once in life time experience. Finding ourselves in Ethiopia in the middle of the Celebration of St. Mary, otherwise known as Hidar Zion, the town celebrates the precesence of the ark in Axum, parading a replica through the streets every morning for two weeks. With Virgin Mary the most venerated religious figure in Ethiopia, tens of thousands of people make the pilgrimage and flood the still dark streets with a sea of white shrouds and flickering candles.
The procession leaves the Church complex at 5am and commences with a short presentation by the priests before the men commence a loop around a large fig tree followed by the replica Ark. The women, who easily outnumber the men, then follow, their shrouds pulled over their heads adding an even greater sense of atmosphere along with the accompanying somber chants emanating from the crowd. It’s a magical moment not to be missed and we felt blessed to be the only tourists here to witness it.
Snatching a few hours sleep before the sun fully rises, we head for breakfast at popular Ezana Cafe, located on the main street. The popular local dish of special fulyugure consists of natural yoghurt, scrambled eggs and bread soaked in berber spices, and we share this along with the special feta, a spicy red bean paste served with scrambled egg and yoghurt. Both dishes come with chopped tomato, onion and chill and with a macchiato on the side cost all of 70 birr (USD$3.30). We’re joined on the street side patio by colourful local birds who seem to know this is where to come to catch the scraps of bread dropped by the morning punters
With only three weeks in Ethiopia we make the wise decision to cover one segment of our journey around the country by air. Having flown into the country on Ethiopian Airlines, we discover a discount is on offer when booking at one of their offices, and we come away with 40min flights from Axum to Lalibela for just 929 birr (USD$44) each, saving 1,150 birr (USD$54) on the online price and saving a potential two day bus trip. The streets of Axum are full of traditional coffee stalls and with our early morning we’re already in need of another caffeine hit. Seats consist of short wooden stools crafted from strips of furry goat skin and the coffee is fresh and strong.
With most of the day still before us we walk to the north of town to view the impressive structures of the Northern Stelea Park. As always we were impressed with how little we know about this amazing country and it’s impressive history that impacted the world. Dating from the 3rd and 4th century the memorial stelea range in size from rough hewn 3ft pieces to the huge 33m Great Stelea, believe to have fallen and broken during construction. At 520 ton it’s reportedly the largest single stone structure ever attempted to be erected on the planet, the collapse was taken as an omen and the construction of stelea petered out shortly after.
The tallest stelea still standing is the 1,700 year old Obelisk of Axum, weighing in at 160 ton and 24m high. Believed to have toppled and broken apart in the 4th century, when the Italians arrived in 1935 they thought it would be a great souvenir, shipping it back in five pieces to be erected in Rome. In 1947 the UN told them to give it back and Italy agreed, taking just over 50 years to pull their finger out and actually ship it back. The Axum runway had to be upgraded to receive it and in 2008 it was finally back where it belonged.
Tombs dot the area, some of which you can access, and a small but worthwhile museum cover the history of the area and religion in Ethiopia in general. The museum is definitely worth checking out and the traditional religious paintings inspired us to go out and buy a replica from Denver shop down the road, along with some beads for Matt’s hair and an antique silver ring for Sarah.. The place is an Aladdin’s Cave of of trinkets, paintings, jewellery, Ethiopian crosses and other hidden delights and the bargaining was light hearted and if you’re lucky you’ll get to meet the owners friendly English speaking son Johannes.
Behind the stelea field a pathway leads to the Queen of Sheba’s baths, though they were built in the 7th C long after her time. Walking back we spot a gate on the right hand side and enter to find a brightly painted church with many women worshiping which we were unable to find an any maps and have been unable to find any information on since. After a long day we head back to the Africa hotel for a cheap feed in the dimly lit dining room and an early night in our damp hotel room.
We’ve got more Ethiopia photos on our Flickr site if you’re interested.
Tips for Axum
- If you can plan to be in Axum to witness the early morning procession of the Ark of the Covenant do it. This was our highlight of our entire trip in Ethiopia, so good we got up at 4:30am two mornings in a row.
- Ezana Cafe is a must for a traditional Ethiopian breakfast, as the huge number of local regulars can attest.
- The drive from Gondar to Shire is one of the countries best, if you only take one bus trip we’d recommend making it this one.
- If you entered Ethiopia with Ethiopian airlines, bring your booking confirmation or boarding pass to the office to obtain a discount on internal flights, a great way to save time and money.