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MARIA VISCONTI November 13, 2008

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In a land of biblical characters and stunning churches, it's easy to see the influence of angels in Ethiopia, writes Maria Visconti. Ethiopia, more commonly associated with famine and the remains of Lucy, one of the world's earliest hominids, must be one of the best-kept traveller's secrets despite being home to seven World Heritage sites, among them the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the Simien National Park. Images of the Ark of the Covenant, Indiana Jones and mysterious rock buildings come to mind when Ethiopia is mentioned, but nothing prepares you for the amazing reality of a truly different society, landscape and history.

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Even time is treated differently there: you become seven years younger on arrival because Ethiopia goes by the 13-month Julian calendar and, accordingly, 1997 began last September. Also, time is calculated from sunrise. Sun one hour over the horizon equals one o'clock, two hours over the horizon two o'clock, and so on. So lunch is at 6 o'clock and dinner at 12. It makes you think. Why do we count from midnight? To avoid confusing visitors all airports and hotels have two sets of clocks. Arrival in the capital, Addis Ababa, is inauspicious. My luggage did not leave Australia when I did (it turned up two days later just as we were about to head north). Not a good start but, undeterred, we set out to explore the sprawling city (the third largest in Africa with five million people). Our group of 12 (aged 30 to 60) and guide was quickly swallowed by the most eclectic mixture of ancient biblical characters wrapped in white cloth from head to toe, priests in medieval robes, willowy, long-legged girls with mobiles to their ears, beaten trucks and fearless donkeys, all shambolically sharing the road among bits of Mussolini's brutalist architecture (Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and stayed until driven out by Allied troops in 1941), dilapidated shops, parks and churches. Addis Ababa means "new flower" and is a relatively new city, founded in 1886. Before that Ethiopian capitals had always been mobile, which makes for fabulous finds for archaeologists and travellers alike. A visit to the merkato (one of the largest outdoor markets on the continent) gives a taste of things to come. Here you can buy camels, mobile phones, cooking pots, clothes or anything else. Imagine being able to buy incense and myrrh from a stall. I thought only the Three Wise Men had access to that. Given the lack of luggage, new knickers would be nice, but I didn't make it past the spice and livestock areas. That night we went to a restaurant called Genet for our first encounter with the local food and the chance to devour dinner, setting and all. Yes, in Ethiopia you eat the plate, too, as piles of minced meat, beans and spicy sauces are served on a gigantic, spongy pancake (injera), which you share with others, using your

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hands in a rip-and-dip feast. By sheer chance and good luck, we walked into the wedding party of a Texan United Nations worker to a pregnant version of the Queen of Sheba. It was here, enveloped in a cloud of incense from the ceremony, that the mother of the bride showed me how to do a local dance known as the iskista by leaning forward with hips motionless letting the shoulders do the dancing. It is addictive, but be warned: spicy food, good local wine, vigorous dancing and the 2355-metre altitude are a perfect recipe for a monumental hangover. THE next morning we headed north by air on the historical route linking the fabulous four towns of Bahar Dar (including Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls), Gonder, Lalibela and Aksum. Starting in Addis means travelling against the historical grain and visiting the most recent places before reaching the ancient capital of Aksum, where it all began 2000 years ago. When the Aksumite king and his court converted officially to Christianity in the fourth century, history took a turn to feverish building punctuated by periodic flights south as the Christian capitals moved away from an expansionist Islam. The chase started in the seventh century when Muhammad's followers crossed over from the Arabian Peninsula. The 13th-century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela owe their existence to this flight south. Unlike their counterparts in medieval Europe, which were built to be seen, Lalibela's churches were built to be hidden. The Ethiopian Airlines flight to Bahar Dar (and all others after that) gives you an idea of how old this continent is and how the land has been tilled for millenniums. The pleasant-looking town, with wide, palm-lined avenues, offers another gigantic market and is a photographer's paradise. Watch out for the camels, especially if you have a slow-reacting digital camera. By the time you've clicked and the camera has responded, a camel's neck which you have not anticipated crossing between you and your target - will be at the centre of your shot. We did not stay in Bahar Dar but headed for the Tana Hotel on the shores of Lake Tana, a couple of kilometres north of town. This was the first of a chain of the government-owned Ghion hotels we stayed in. With an amazing variety of birds inhabiting the area, the position was unrivalled, the grounds neatly kept and the rooms adequate. Throughout the trip we encountered the same kind of African-themed room and the same swimming pool with no water - Ethiopia is in the grip of drought more often than not. That afternoon we set off in search of one of the ancient monasteries that dot the 37 islands scattered across the lake's 3600 square kilometres. We had a motor boat and aimed for the Zege Peninsula and one of the most famous monasteries. After a 40-minute ride we ran the gauntlet of souvenir sellers and arrived at a quiet compound where dozens of monks lived. The monastery was circular, with a thatched roof, and the silent keeper took us around to the treasures. We padded around barefoot on cool reed mats and aimed our torches at the paintings, silver crosses and musical instruments as their delightful stories unfolded. The next morning we headed to the Blue Nile Falls by minivan. The cool air of the highlands took an immediate hold on the travellers, creating a sense of expectancy. Bird life added sound to vast expanses of yellow meskel daisies and ubiquitous flattopped acacias. Children, cloaked in traditional blankets, shepherded their flocks with arms hanging loose from the staff across their shoulders. Otherwise they played with sticks and stones. The altitude and thin air make for brilliant photographs first time around.

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The falls, depending on the season, can be spectacular, but were quite small when we got there. We negotiated the river in small boats, rubbing shoulders with priests in yellow shawls under yellow umbrellas. We made eye contact and received a blessing. I reckoned we might need it in a tinnie this size as the guide told us to keep an eye out for hippos and crocs. THE Kebra Negast, the great holy book of Ethiopia, dates from the 14th century and is a wondrous source of information, especially when it is being related orally. Our guide, Samson, held us mesmerised. He could have been an Abyssinian angel out of a 12th-century fresco, so vividly did he relate the stories about the places we visited. Lalibela is a small and unassuming village and nobody would suspect that, a few hundred metres away, between folds of volcanic tuff, are one of the most astonishing wonders of the civilised world: huge monastic complexes that are invisible unless you are directed to them and even today are difficult to reach. We went through tunnels excavated out of rock, squeezed through dark passages and negotiated hundreds of lichencovered stone steps worn down by centuries of use. This is where King Lalibela, in the 12th century, carried out his most ambitious plan: to build a hidden religious complex carved out of the rock and linked by tunnels. His inspiration came after an attempt to murder him with poison left him in a three-day stupor. During this time, according to the Kebra Negast, he was transported by angels to heaven and given the blueprints for his project. Fantasy or not, the Lalibela churches are still standing and stun even the most cynical traveller. The Church of St George (in the shape of a Greek cross inside and out) is breathtaking: a gigantic monolith stands more than 12 metres deep in the middle of a finely finished pit. This was no museum. Pilgrims rested their chins on wooden staffs, lined the passageways, and kissed the massive ramparts. Altar boys unfurled multicoloured parasols trimmed with gold thread that shimmered in the sun. We were high and the air was thin. The incense rose in clouds, wafting outdoors. We looked up. More pilgrims were waiting at the rim for their turn to descend to the holy enclave. Once submerged in this world, requesting rational explanations risked spoiling the story-line. Would you question the devout old monk who reverently pointed at the hoof prints St George's horse left on the ramparts surrounding the church? Legend has it the venerated saint descended on the site to ask King Lalibela why there was not yet a church bearing his name. On St George's way back to heaven the horse left its hoof marks in the rock walls. The fact that angels are said to have taken over its construction by night to speed the church's completion adds to the mystery. Around the historical route it was possible to eat at local places or have a drink at a traditional pub. Your guide will know where to find them, or ask the hotel staff. It makes for a welcome break from the government-owned hotels' "European" menu. In Lalibela we stayed at the Roha Hotel and as word spread that a group of foreigners was visiting, wandering minstrels (azmaris) materialised out of the blue. They were usually whittled down to a man and a woman singing saucy lines to each other. The male played the masenko (a single-stringed instrument) and the woman percussion. More often than not the exchange was vulgar but extremely funny. We asked our guide to translate at a point when, it turned out, the woman was telling her partner he "farted like an out-of-range radio". We had gone from the sublime to the vulgar, but we were among the locals and lapping it all up. If traipsing around hidden churches carved out of rock were not

enough, Gonder, the sophisticated 17th-century city built by King Fasiladas, offered massive castles of Mogul Indian influences, baroque palaces and churches with exquisite paintings. It sticks in the traveller's mind in the shape of hundreds of Abyssinian angel faces (crinkly Afros and the huge, almond-shaped eyes of the Amhara people) staring down from painted ceilings. Gonder lies at the foot of the Simien Mountains and a day's walk took us close to troupes of bleeding-heart baboons, which kept a greedy eye on our packed lunches. Aksum and its fields of ancient obelisks came last in our itinerary. The Yeha Hotel, which continued the tradition of the pool with no water, had a terrace overlooking the site. But how the 23-metre obelisks were put into place still defies explanation. Torn down by Queen Gudit in the 10th century, they now resemble derailed train carriages. Aksum also claims the Ark of the Covenant in the old St Mary of Zion Church. Swept three times by monotheistic religions, the Ethiopians remain a cohesive culture despite dictatorial and often brutal regimes. The people are friendly and children articulate and charming in English. They suffered greatly through Mussolini's invasion and their annexation by Italy. A short experiment with socialism proved disastrous. A propensity to isolation produced a historical time-warp: the kind of Judaism practised here until the 1970s and 1980s, when about 60,000 Jews were flown to Israel, was pre-Talmudic. Christianity is of the original variety - minus the "robins in the snow" and The Da Vinci Code. In Ethiopia you are transported to another, wondrous world. And, who knows, perhaps angels did have a hand in it all.

GETTING THERE Emirates flies from Sydney to Dubai, with an Ethiopian Airlines connection to Addis Ababa. Alternatively, you can go with South African Airways via Johannesburg.

BEING THERE There are many hotels around the historical sites and top of the list is the state-owned Ghion group, which has the best locations. Do not expect five-star accommodation or service - it's all rather desultory as a result of Ethiopia's brush with socialism a few years ago. Although all hotels boast swimming pools, they are likely to be empty. Ethiopia is often in the grip of drought and visitors should be careful not to waste water. Addis Ababa sits at an altitude of 2355 metres, so take precautions if you suffer altitude sickness.

TOURS World Expeditions offers two trips. One combines the historical sights with a seven-day trek in the Simien Mountains (17 days in all) for $4690 (excluding international air fares). The other is a shorter version with two nights' camping in the Simiens (10 days) for $2990. See

MORE INFORMATION Samson Tilahun, tour operator and guide, PO Box 13553, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Email Experience Ethiopia Travel, see Ads by Google

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