Selam, an assistant guide who doubled as chief cook, set a plate in front of me, a mountain of spaghetti topped with what would prove to be a delicious tomato sauce. I started to tell her that even after our six-hour walk it was much more than I needed, but she didn’t understand, and I didn’t want to offend her. So I lifted my fork and spoon and ate the lot. I didn’t want to waste food, not in Ethiopia.
For most people, Africa’s 10th biggest country is synonymous with poverty, drought and famine. After my second visit, I associate it with heaped plates, brimming tumblers of home brew and endless bowls of coffee. That’s what you can expect if you take up the invitation of its villagers to come and taste their way of life in the Simien Mountains.
You can expect, too, some lung-busting climbs, some tricky descents and incredible views of canyons as grand as anything on offer in Arizona.
The invitation comes via the tour operator Village Ways, a specialist in showing how the money of visitors can supplement local incomes without supplanting local life.
Having long operated in India, it branched out last year to Georgia, Spain and Thailand. Ethiopia is its latest offering, the fruit of a collaboration between three parties: the Village Ways Partnership, the development arm of the tour operator; the African Wildlife Foundation, which has been working in conservation since the Sixties; and the villagers themselves.
Village Ways helps with guesthouse-building and training, the foundation provides capital funding, and the villagers act as guides, cooks, housekeepers and porters. If you find the walking tough, you can follow your luggage on the back of a sturdy mule.
Tourism may be new to the three villages in the scheme – Taga Mariam, Khalid Abo and Timbala – but it is well developed just to the north of them, in the spectacular Simien Mountains National Park, listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site in 1979, a year after Yellowstone in the United States.
Many of the 50,000 or so tourists who visited Ethiopia in 2015 would have spent time there, drawn by a landscape of canyons, cliffs and crags and by the chance to see several endangered animals: the Walia ibex, a wild mountain goat found nowhere else in the world; the gelada baboon; and the Ethiopian wolf, which in size, shape and colouring looks more like a fox.
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The wolf was hiding during my trip, but gelada baboons, including mothers with babies on their backs, were everywhere, off and on the gravel road that climbs and falls and switchbacks through the park. Lammergeier vultures and augur buzzards coasted on the thermals.
Thanks to the sharp eyes of Tilahun, the driver who took me between the city of Gondar and the villages, I was also lucky enough to see a herd of some 20 Walia ibex, including a male with horns that must have been a yard long.
In the market town of Mekane Birhan, I met the guides who would be with me for the best part of a week, Biara, 26, and Selam, 21 – Barca Man and Brolly Woman, as I came to think of them. Biara, an earnest specialist in the management of natural resources, carried a duffel bag emblazoned with the faces of the footballers Xabi Alonso and Lionel Messi. Selam, who had only a few words of English but a constant smile, was rarely seen without her pink-and-white parasol.
From the trail head outside town, as Tilahun drove away and my luggage went bouncing off on the back of a donkey, I set off to walk for an hour with Biara and Selam through fields of golden stubble and up and down rocky inclines to our first stop: Taga Mariam.
Well, an hour and a bit. We got diverted, as visitors often are, by Ethiopian hospitality. Half a dozen men, sitting in a juniper-shaded circle of stone benches, hollered to us to come and share their home-brewed barley beer. Here, as everywhere I went, that beer – a murky, slightly sour concoction that tastes better the more you drink – would be served in plastic tumblers filled to the brim.
One of the oldest men told me through Biara: “Now you’ve seen where I live, I’d like to see your home.” I should have told him the beer might be a let-down.
My temporary home, at all three villages, was a tukul, part of an encampment on a plateau offering great views of the surrounding countryside. At Taga Mariam and Khalid Abo, the encampment was right on the edge of a gorge. At the greener, lusher Timbala, it looked down over fields, with the Simien Mountains as a backdrop.
The traditional tukul is a thatched round hut with a conical roof, built of timber plastered with mud and cow dung. The tourist tukuls are more substantial: rubble stone, floored with rough concrete. One serves as a kitchen/dining room, one as sleeping quarters for guides and guards, and one is for the guests. There’s a mini one, too, that houses a long-drop lavatory. The promised solar showers weren’t yet working during my stay, so I managed with a washing-up bowl.
Our arrival at Taga Mariam established a pattern for the next few days. A welcoming committee of hosts and cooks and a Kalashnikov-toting guard approached one by one, giving me that singularly Ethiopian greeting in which a clasp of the hand is followed by two bumps of right shoulder to right shoulder.
I never quite figured out why the guards were there, but the locals seemed to consider them a necessary deterrent to thieves and bandits and anything that might threaten the new venture of tourism.
Once I’d been shown my sleeping quarters and had taken a stroll around the site, coffee – a leisurely three rounds of it – would be served in the kitchen/diner tukul, followed, maybe, by a performance of traditional dancing by firelight that drew in men and women, young and old, guard and weapon.
If Irish dancing is all below the waist, Ethiopian dancing is all above it. It’s about swift and sinuous movements of head, neck, chest and, particularly, shoulders in time to the music (or to the clapping of hands or the beat on a plastic water drum). When Biara got the chance to show off his shoulder-dancing moves, I saw a new side to him.
Entertainment over, everyone would melt away and leave me to my dinner. The locals themselves may eat communally, three or four of them sharing the same dish, but they seemed to feel that their visitor should be given a little elbow room.
Food was neither as varied nor as memorable as I’d had at a Village Ways project in the Himalayas, but I hadn’t expected it to be. Breakfast was either a plain omelette or scrambled eggs with onion, served with hunks of wheat bread. Dinner was the local dish of shiro (made with haricot beans, tomato, vegetable oil, onion and water), served either with injera – the staple source of carbohydrate in Ethiopia – or as a sauce for spaghetti. I never acquired a taste for the sour, doughy injera, but I did enjoy the shiro, especially one evening when I broke the rules and asked Selam to serve it with rice, and she gave me a plate of chopped green chillies to stir into it.
My dinner over, I’d make myself scarce so my hosts could enjoy theirs. Each guest tukul has two raised beds of stone and concrete, with a recess for a mattress. They are boat-shaped, with a pillow at the stern. Without a mattress, they have the scary look of a sacrificial altar. With one, and crisp, clean bedding, they are surprisingly comfortable. I slept well, at least after the first night, when a village drunk, blundering among our tukuls, woke me just before midnight. I blame the barley beer.
There was quite a lot of that on offer over the next few days as I walked between the villages and around them, being invited into homes and classrooms and community gatherings. The locals were as curious about me as I was about them. A priest, having stared at me for a while after I took off my hat, told me he had never seen anyone with straight hair. Children, when I paused to take a photograph, would shout to all their friends to come and look at the faranji – the foreigner.
At least most of them did. On my last day in the villages, as I crested a ridge outside Timbala, I surprised a young goatherd, who took one look at me and bolted. Biara shouted to him that I wasn’t going to eat him, but he wasn’t convinced. I was probably the first white man he had ever seen.
Land in the Simien Mountains is cut by drystone walls reminiscent of those of Ireland or upland England. But it’s overworked, overgrazed and depleted, and many of the heaps of stone are there not as boundaries but as bulwarks, to stop rain washing away yet more soil.
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While the population is rising, crop yields are falling. Emyamerew (or “Emy”), the quietly charismatic project coordinator for Village Ways, told me that it was hard to make farmers see that they needed to respond. They were reluctant to use fertilisers and even when they were offered a higher-yielding strain of wheat, they usually stuck with the traditional one.
He faced a similar challenge in converting them to the benefits of tourism, but reckoned they were slowly being won over. “I tell them, if you can’t harvest enough to feed your family, you should have some supplementary money. The tourists will bring that – not a lot, but some.”
For this first year, he said, the villagers are aiming for 100 bookings. I hope they get them.
Michael Kerr travelled with Ethiopian Airlines (0800 016 3449; ethiopianairlines.com/uk/en), which flies daily from Heathrow to Gondar via Addis Ababa. Return fares start at £690 in Economy, £2,065 in Business, including taxes.
He was a guest of Village Ways (01223 750049; villageways.com), which arranges nine-night trips in the villages of the Simien Mountains from £1,154 to £1,286pp, based on two sharing, or from £948pp for four or more.
The price includes one night’s b&b in Gondar, six nights’ full-board in the villages and two nights’ half-board in a National Park lodge, a private guided walk in the Simien Mountains, and all travel starting and finishing in Gondar. International and internal flights cost extra. Available Sept 29-Nov 30, 2016; Jan 15-May 30, 2017.
Visitors to Ethiopia require a visa, which UK and Irish nationals can obtain on arrival; see ethioembassy.org.uk
For health precautions advice, see nathnac.org.
One of the best guidebooks is Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (Bradt).
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