Chapter 12: A Wander Around Gonder
Ghion Hotel, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia…
Melissa left the rest of us at the hotel this morning to go into Gonder in search of yet another spare tire. We waited for her on the hotel’s expansive back patio. The girls pretended to be dolphins in the empty swimming pool while Jim, Jen and I lorded over the ancient city from concrete benches at hill’s edge.
Dozens of eagles plied their trade in the rising heat. They floated up in expanding spirals, riding the thermals without a wing flap, until they nearly disappeared into the blue. Then they’d swoop down, beaks curved in wicked deadly grins, and disappear into the forest in front of us upon some small unsuspecting herbivore.
Melissa returned with a new spare tire strapped to the back of the Galloper, but shaking her head. It seems like we got a tire that was approximately what we needed. It wasn’t recommended for any long hauls at high speed, but it would do in an emergency. We began to realize the wisdom of all those Range Rovers we saw with two spares riding on their rooftops.
With our Mighty Ethiopian Action Adventure Force fully assembled, we were ready to descend upon Gonder.
Gonder was Ethiopia’s capital city for some two-and-a-half centuries after being founded by King Fasilidas in 1635. Located at the nexus of three major caravan routes, it seemed like an ideal location. But the town has seen its hard times too. It was sacked in the 1880s by Sudanese Dervishes (Dervishes!) and hit by British bombs trying to oust the Italians in 1941.
Gonder’s historical highlight for culture vultures is the Royal Enclosure, a walled-in area of about 70,000 square meters housing no less than six castles built in the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time they were larger than any of their European counterparts. While some were in disrepair, enough remained to give you a proper sense of their grandeur. Huge halls with high ceilings and massive fireplaces you could walk through echoed with banquets long gone. Tiny spiral staircases led us across rickety walkways into domed turrets where princesses surely stood staring out across courtyard gardens and over the pacing guards atop high walls of brown basalt. Empty pens that once housed Abyssinian lions still looked like their captive cats had stepped out only recently. Balconies had their wooden doors thrown wide, letting in sunlight and inviting you to step out and look out over a kingdom that existed when the Pilgrims were begging the Indians for some maize.
If I may lift a paragraph from the Lonely Planet: “Gilded Venetian mirrors and chairs made up the furnishings; gold leaf, ivory and beautiful paintings adorned the walls. Visiting travelers described the palace as ‘more beautiful than Solomon’s house’”.
Having never been invited to Solomon’s gaff, I can’t vouch for that last quote, but take a peek at the pictures and try to imagine how even more impressive this would have looked a few centuries back.
A short walk away was Debre Berhan Selassie Church. Which means ‘Trinity at the Mount of Light’. From the outside, it was just a small rectangular church inside a quiet courtyard. When we found the priest to let us in, we began to see why this church was so special.
The ceiling was painted completely with the winged heads of 80 cherubs. Their wide-eyed gaze fell down upon us and walls covered with brightly painted intricate murals of Ethiopian saints, lore and legends. Looking at them up close you could see they were painted over walls of dried mud. It was amazing that you could get so close to something so ancient and delicate.
Local legend says Debre Berhan Selassie was saved from the Dervishes (Dervishes, I say!) because a swarm of bees attacked them. (Again with the bees. I’ve got to take some honey home with me. It’ll probably give me super-powers.). Many also believe the emperor planned to keep the Ark of the Covenant here under the unflinching gaze of the cherubs.
After a quick blessing from the priest, we piled into the vehicle and kept heading south. Remember, there were now seven of us and all our gear inside. It looked something like this:
Thankfully, we only had a two-hour jaunt to Bahar Dar on the south shore of Lana Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake.
First thing we did when we got to our rooms was put up our mosquito netting. Malaria is rampant in the area this time of year and I wasn’t going to take any chances. I laughed at the fact that I owned my own mosquito netting before my own tux.
Second thing we did was sit out in the shade on the back patio, look out at the water, have a few St. George’s and wait for the sun catch up with us for a change.
Ah, there you are. What kept you?
[In Our Next Episode: Into (and hopefully out of) the Blue Nile Gorge…]