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Ethiopian Rock Stars

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The search

Hawzen, Ethiopia

With internet access so scetchy in Ethiopia I was unable to write blog reports as I went along, but the trip was so utterly awesome that it definitely deserves a little airtime.

Three weeks before departure, I was hooking up with a friend-of-a-friend to go on a climbing trip. I had left England, and was based in the States for nearly three months. I thought this was a great opportunity to get some girly climbing time in a new area of the States... except that it was in a different continent!

It transpired that there was an all-girls trip planned to check out the climbing potential of the enormous sandstone cliffs and pillars in the North of Ethiopia. Prepared only for winter sport climbing at Smith, plans started materialising, and another week had passed. I didn't truely believe that I would be going until I was actually on the plane; there was so much organising, and a long roadtrip from Portland to LA (where I left the States), via Smith Rock and Bishop to accomplish in the meantime.

Touchdown in Addis Abba was much like landing in any third world city, and was somehow comfortingly familiar in that way. The city smog, honking horns, smell of old cars and hot tarmack filled the air. Shacks lined the road selling everything from clothes to phonecards to fruit under the same corrugated roof.
I spent 3 days recovering from jet-lag and checking out the city, spending one day visiting the markets, and and day on the museums, paying my respects to our first bipedal ancester Lucy in her 3ft glory.

The team amassed slowly. Majka was already in Addis when I arrived, then Gabe, the photographer joined us before our flight to the North. Mekele was an interesting town, somewhat cleaner and more up-market than Addis, but then that's not hard! There's a cool Italian-style Castle for Emperor Johannes IV that acts as the museum, and a tour with a theatrical guide was well worth the £1.50 cost.

We just spent one day there before heading up to our first climbing destination Hawzen. The three of us had a few days climbing and exploring before the rest of the team, Kristie and Caroline arrived to join us.

In our first few days, Majka and I soon discovered that the rock was not as solid as we would have liked it to be and we had some fairly hairy experiences, pulling off flakes and losing footholds. We did, however, arrive on the summit of one of the Sheba spires, by the sheer (5.10) face, which was quite exhilerating; marred slightly by the fact that the local children had found an easier ascent around the backside, and met us only 10 feet from the top! It did, however mean that we had an easy way off, with the benefit of their knowledge. We called the tower 'Theodros Tower', after Emperor Theodros who shot himself rather than surrender to the enemy, and the route we named 'Learning the Hard Way', in honour of the children.

The hotel we were staying in in Hawzen turned out to be much better than expected. It had a shared shower and a Turkish toilet with a door that didn't shut, but at least everyting was clean,
and the people that worked there were really happy and helpful. The beers were only 30 pence too, and as cold as you like on a hot day!

permalink written by  Chickadee on March 25, 2007 from Hawzen, Ethiopia
from the travel blog: Ethiopian Rock Stars
tagged Climbing and Ethiopia

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The team arrives

Hawzen, Ethiopia

From there on I climbed mostly with Kristie, having placed fourth at Ouray, she was super experienced, and had a cool head. Being an English trad climber myself, I was not a great advocate of cams, prefering my tripple rack of wires as my arsenal. I soon learnt! Having 'taken', fallen and 'down-led' several times over the next few days, I was still in one piece, and I had only had a couple of pieces blow on me!

Gabe, the photographer, had the worst experiences of the trip. He pulled off a fridge-sized plate (OK, a small fridge) on the second day. At least he was on the second, but it certainly put the wind up him a little. He was ready to bail at that point, and head for the more interesting option of the off-road motorbike tour! We kept him focussed for long enough that he had another near death experience when a cam blew from an anchor as he was repelling. Luckily there were three more to stop the fall, but it nearly stopped his heart too!

Kristie and I found arguably the best pitch of the trip, three pitches up on Gerhalta, just outside Hawzen. It was the only solid rock found all trip; fittingly named 'The Jewell in the Sand', it was a perfect finger to hand-sized crack. Ironically it was found by accident, while aiming for a differnt pitch altogether.

Our second climbing destination was around the town of the anchient civilisation at Aksum. This is where the Arc of the Covenant is said to have come to rest in one of the churches. It is also the location of the BC obelisks, the pagan stellae, not 100yds from the church. We found the cliff from which the obelisks had been hewn, thousands of years ago, and went climbing. I led a very slippy granite crack on the left hand side of the face. It turned out to be tricky climbing and insecure gear placement, but that was nothing compared to the face-full of dried faeces that I got from disturbing an old bird's nest!

Altogether, the four of us climbed 7 routes, 4 single pitch, and 3 multi-pitch, one of which topped out on a pillar. This may not seem a lot for ten days climbing amongst four people, but considering the fact that the rock quality was so poor, the cliffs were so large, and the approaches so exhausing, we were really quite proud of ourselves :-)

We went to climb, but we came away with so much more experience than just that of the rock.

We explored a rock hewn church,
we ate with the priest in his mud-hut home,

we sampled the local dough-ball delicacies, and the coffee ceremonies ,

we talked to children who had never seen white faces before. There was one time when a group of children surrounded the car, waving and cheering. When I took off my sunglasses to smile at them, they fell silent and just stared. It was almost as if they were mesmirised by my blue eyes.

I feel honoured to have climbed with such stong and experienced female climbers, and to have met such a fun photographer. The main memories of the trip, however, will be the people of Ethiopia. The faces of the children, and the open smiles, were with us constantly. All were interested in these crazy 'faranges', and all were only too keen to help (well almost all, but that's another story).

permalink written by  Chickadee on March 25, 2007 from Hawzen, Ethiopia
from the travel blog: Ethiopian Rock Stars
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Greece meets Russia

Sofia, Bulgaria

Christmas time in England is great, but it's only a short hop from Europe, and some of the best skiing in the world, and yet I still decided that Bulgaria was the place to take my boyfriend for his Christmas present. Well, there was no snow anywhere, so we may as well choose somewhere interesting :-)

The original holiday was from Manchester Airport, to Plovdiv in Bulgaria, with a transfer from the Crystal Ski group to Bansko. Jason and I thought that it would be a shame to come all the way to Bulgaria and only see the inside of a ski resort, so we booked an earlier flight to Sofia, the capital, and stayed there for two days. As it turns out it is a good job we did, as the hotel is a characterless spa holiday destination that scrapes it’s four stars from its facilities, not from it’s comfort, its charm, or the friendliness of its staff!

Sofia, however, was one of the most intriguing cities I have ever visited. With its long, chequered history, from the Romans, to the new, month-old membership of the European Union, with communism less than a decade away, the flavours of all still remain. The looming, imposing, big-windowed, be-balconied heirlooms of the Soviet era nestle between tall accommodation blocks, in what could be seen as affluence proximal to poverty, but all is now in a state of decay. The grand facades are peeling, and wrought iron rusts on balconies. In another city this may infer a downturn of the economy, but the consumerism appears to be booming. At street level, the shops sell high end fashion at full prices. Chic, designer clothing and classy footwear boutiques line the main-streets, with up-market eateries in the alleys. By night, the streets are humming and prosperous, but by day, the signs of an up-coming economy, rather than an established one, are evident by looking up.

One of the amazing things about Sofia is that the past has never been eradicated. Despite having been bombed to bits in the war, and several raisings to the ground in the past, Roman walls, gates and churches still remain. The old city of Serdika is still there, although much is buried beneath the city. In the main square, the very centre of Sofia, ‘The Largo’, a long park, lined with flags, headed with a huge black and gold statue, surrounded by monumental buildings and the Soviet Party Headquarters, there is a huge hole in the ground. In the middle of this hole, an old stone structure raises its head to the world. It is one of the side towers to the original gate to the Roman city of Serdika. Similar holes exist all over the city: Roman walls, wells, churches. Where the subways have been excavated under roads, Roman structures have been unearthed, and lie open for everyone to walk though.

Lennin lies down in the park of statues, signifying no more than the lack of urgency to re-erect him after a fall, but other communist symbols are prolific. The war statues, the opera house, the university, they all tell a story of heroes fallen, but the culture has a distinctly southern European flavour. The neighbours, Greece and Turkey reflect the same family heritage; the food, the dancing and the music. The national costume and national dance is still part of a proud culture, but the language is more northern in origin, and the writing, Cyrillic, is of Russian decent. The overall impression is a ‘Greece meets Russia’ in capital letters for both sides!

The people seem hard to relate to. Maybe they are just wary, or weary of tourists, but in two days there was no way to get a real impression. On our second day, however, we were lucky to stumble on a delightful display of real life Sofia. In one of the parks, a skating rink had been constructed. When we arrived the groomer was clearing the surface, so we paused awhile to see what was going to pass. It happened that the junior team was about to have practice. We watched for nearly an hour while tiny tot, after tiny tot whirred and spun their way around the ice. The better ones had routines that they were trying to polish, and each had their turn on the ice. Little ones, not even out of nappies, were practicing skating backwards at speed. One little lad, whizzing backwards at top speed, skated straight into the photographer. There was much laughter and many proud parents, but one of the highlights for me was three young girls in the audience. Not thinking anyone was watching them, they stood back from the rink, and jigged a national dance with each other, just for fun. These dances are not just something that entertaining groups do for the tourists in cliché-ed ‘local culture’ nightspots. Every little child learns how to dance this way.

In two days we saw as much culture as we were going to see for this trip, but how glad we were to have had these two days. Sofia is a gem of a city with a wealth of history and culture, and is worth far more than the brief visit than we afforded it this time.

permalink written by  Chickadee on January 15, 2007 from Sofia, Bulgaria
from the travel blog: Bulgaria
tagged Sofia and Culture

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