where living treasures thrive among ancient attractions

We could not see the ark because no one is allowed to enter the small chapel that reputedly houses it — not even the man who is selected to devote his life to guarding it. Giant obelisks stand on the site of underground tombs, except for one mighty 33m spire that collapsed as it was erected, crushing a tomb nearby. “You only had one job,” some wit murmured as we looked at the fallen obelisk. This was the largest block of stone humans had tried to erect, bigger even than Egypt’s obelisks. So far all the tombs that have been found have been plundered by robbers, but plenty more are believed to lie undiscovered.

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Ethiopia’s constructions today are rarely as impressive or as sturdy as the churches, tombs and obelisks. I blew all the sockets in one hotel bedroom when bare wires on a bedside lamp touched and ignited.

I asked to switch rooms only when the curtains fell off their rail — and then I ended up in a suite with no hot water.

Still, even the most basic hotels are more lavish than the homes of rural Ethiopians.

Driving through mesmerising scenery of dramatic mountains and valleys, we passed villages comprised of straw and wooden huts plastered with cow dung and roofed with tin or plaited leaves.

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Plastic bags and bottles lay strewn next to the roads and vultures perched on the rubbish dumps. Goats, oxen and impressively horned zebu cattle roamed freely, but the crops seemed scarce and poor.

One thriving crop is khat, or cat, a leaf chewed for its stimulating properties. Perversely, we saw many men lolling around listlessly or asleep on the pavements, oblivious to the life around them.

Khat is an important crop around the walled town of Harar, another world heritage site dating back to about the
7th century.

The maze of 368 narrow alleys encircled by the city walls was delightful to explore, but again it was the encounters with the living I will remember most.

Hyenas that live wild outside the city walls sometimes lope through the ancient stone gates to scavenge for food at night. A local man has made it his job to feed them, and we joined him one evening.

He sat in the dust with a basket of meat and two, then three, large and healthy-looking hyenas ambled out of the shadows. Soon there were seven of the animals, and the man called me forward to join him. I sat at his side as he speared a piece of meat onto a stick and held it up between our heads.

Sharp teeth

A hyena behind me rested its paws on my shoulders and I watched its sharp teeth grab the meat from beside my ear.

It felt surreal, and I couldn’t help grinning with the thrill of being so close to such powerful, bone-crushing creatures.

My final memorable encounter with living, breathing Ethiopians came in the Simien Mountains, yet another Unesco world heritage site.

The guides call it the Roof of Africa, as a massive plateau tumbles into great folds of undulating mountains pierced by jagged volcanic pinnacles and stretches far into the distance beyond all horizons.

We hiked through knee-deep grass hiding rocks that tripped me up, until we saw dark blobs sitting on some shorter grass in the distance. These were gelada monkeys, endemic to Ethiopia and the highest dwelling primates on the planet.

They’re sociable little creatures, roaming in troops of 300 or 400 and feeding off the roots of plants. They patiently dig up the grass with their fingers until they unearth some roots, then plant their faces into the soil to rip them out with their teeth.

It’s a comical sight, and we humans sat among them, meriting only an occasional glance as the adults dug and scratched and the youngsters romped around screeching and squawking like excited kids.

It’s incredible — another natural wonder that, along with the country’s ancient human endeavours, makes Ethiopia quite magical.

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