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Trip Report 2010 Ethiopia: Opals, Agates, & Coffee Beans

Jul 03 2010Billings To Addis Ababa

7/3/10-With excitement and some trepidation we left Billings on time…boarding a small United CRJ200…destination Addis Ababa, Ethiopia…but first Denver.  The flight was smooth on time and comfortable…even for my six foot two inch frame.   We left Denver for Washington Dulles aboard a Boeing 757 that again was smooth and uneventful.  Bought a Thai Chicken Wrap lunch on the plane and would recommend this tasty selection.  Left Dulles on time on a very, very cramped Ethiopia Airlines 767 that was sweltering hot from the start to the finish…no overhead cooling air nozzles by the reading lights.  We were seated in the back of the plane in the center seats.  Guess we drew the short straw.

Jul 04 2010Arriving in Addis Ababa

Our hotel room view showed lots of construction in this area of Addis.

7/4/10 Dozed on and off intermittently during the 9 hour flight, landed in Rome for fuel and cabin cleaning, but couldn’t deplane. Next stop was Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Arrived Ethiopia at 7:00PM and spent a good hour going through customs and getting our visas, which are only available at the airport. Met our 3 good friends (& opal exporters) and were dropped off at the Kaleb Hotel in Addis…our home away from home. Had supper at the restaurant in the hotel and retired to our comfortable room for as long as we could stay asleep.

Jul 05 2010Ethiopian Dancers

Darlene was a trooper and joined in when asked by the singers and other Ethiopian dancers to give it a try.

7/5/10 Exchanged US$ for Ethiopian Birr…exchange rate is about 13 birr for 1 dollar.  Then a visit to the Ministry of Mines and Energy was necessary, to obtain a permit to visit the opal mines near Delanta in Welo Province.   Ethiopia is definitely a paperwork driven country…but getting permits is preferable to spending time in the Delanta jail…where western visitors to this small town, without guides and proper documentation have ended up.  Darlene had her first taste of Ethiopian Montezuma’s revenge…so we stopped at a pharmacy for Ciprofloxacin which seems to be effective against this bug.  That evening the five of us went to a lovely authentic Ethiopian restaurant with our hosts.  Had Injera (sourdough flatbread made from fermented teff) and several types of wat (stew-like foods) and were entertained by traditional Ethiopian folk dancers.  Wonderful evening and our friends were wonderful hosts.

Jul 06 2010Museums And Churches

Passing through a small town on the road to Dessie we enjoyed viewing small Ethiopian horses pulling carts.

7/6/2010 Next day Steve had stomach distress (being polite) and started on the Cipro as well.  Darlene and I sat next to a physician on the plane to Addis and he advised us to take Cipro and loperamide when we first have diarrhea symptoms…said it would only take a couple days on the antibiotic to kick the bug.  So far it’s worked for Dar…jury’s still out for Steve.

Toured Addis and saw the Haile Selassie Church and the Ethiopian National Museum.  Had a light lunch at a delightful outdoor café near the University where the National Museum is located.  Went to bed with dreams of bright, crystal opal…tomorrow we begin our trek to the Welo opal mines.

Jul 08 2010Day At The Mines

Darlene and I at an overlook, below Delanta ( Tsehay Mewcha)...mines can be seen in the lower background along cliffs.

7/8/10 Long days drive to the Delanta (Tsehay Mewcha) opal mines, so our travels that day began early.  We found a decent 2 lane black top road leading to Desse, full of tight turns and switchbacks…climbing steeply into the mountains. Once passing through the busy market streets of Dessie we turned onto a rugged, rough mountain road heading up into the terraced igneous mountains.  Our first flat tire happened while crossing a dry stream…possibly due to the sharp basalt gravel covering the road.   Delanta appeared when we topped out on the mountain above the steep river gorge.  And here we saw our first troop of baboons in a tilled field as we approached the outskirts of town.  Stops were made at the local Mining Ministry office for more permits and the police station for a police escort armed with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle.  Our driver carefully drove the Landcruiser as close as he could to the edge of town…right above the stunning geometric basalt columned cliffs.  Our hike began.  With several guides and mining officials we descended the narrow foot trail along the steep cliffs.  This trail wasn’t for the faint of heart!  An hour’s worth of hiking brought us down to an overlook, from where we could see opal miners working to remove stones from a soft igneous layer…perhaps a fine grained igneous pyroclastic tuff layer.  Asking how to actually get down to the mines themselves, our guides pointed out a steep winding 5 mile trail, on the adjoining mountain, which led over and down the steep cliffs to the opal mines we were photographing.

But this deposit extends along the river gorge for several kilometers.  We were able to visit and photograph only one of many opal diggings along the mountainside below Delanta (Tsehay Mewcha).  Some areas have high concentrations of opal where a single miner may dig out a kilogram of this bright crystal opal in a day.  But other deposits may require a week or more for the same results.  With a gemmy kilo of this opal selling for more than US$1000.00, this must be like winning a lottery for the local farmers and herders.  Due to the remote location of this deposit I’d guess some very intense prospecting might be in order…perhaps it already is.  The Welo deposit is much richer than present day Australian opal deposits. But all work in Ethiopia must be done with relatively simple hand tools carried for miles down to the mines.  Then all the tools and opals must be carried back up to Delanta on foot…every night.  Of course all this is done at approximately 10,000ft.  The gem-stones found at the Welo deposit are a type called hydrophane opal.  Hydrophane opal is very hygroscopic and when immersed in water will lose its base color and play-of-color as quickly as an hour’s time.  Then drying for a couple days will return this opal to its original bright colorful state.  Since this opal is mined in a slightly moist matrix the miners allow it to dry in the sun for several days before it is sold to various licensed Ethiopian opal buyers, inspected by the Ethiopian Ministry of Mines and Energy and shipped around the globe.  Of course this is much different on our Australian opal buying trips: we go to several opal miners from whom we’ve bought opal for years and mail the stones back to the USA ourselves, via the Australian Post.

On the way back from Delanta to Kambolcha the rough road claimed another tire.  While our guide and driver were changing the tire we hiked down to a dry nearby dry river bed.  Among the colorful rounded river rock we found a plentiful supply of medium sized white, pale blue and green agates.  Yup…opals aren’t my only vice.  What a great day…opals and agates.  On the winding mountain road down from Desse to Kambolcha we sighted a hyena running across the road in our headlights…back to the Sunnyside Hotel for a late tasty roast chicken dinner and bed.

Jul 09 2010Lalibela

Ethiopian children posing and clowning for us in Lalibela

7/9/10-7/10/10 Lalibela: On today’s journey we left our Welo opals behind and began a tour of the Northern Historical Region of Ethiopia.  Our Land Cruiser tour would take us to Lalibela home of rock hewn churches, Bahir Dar on beautiful Lake Tana and nearby falls of the Blue Nile, Gondar and its 17th century castle, the Simien Mountains (and rare Gelada baboons & Walia Ibex) and beautiful Simien Lodge, Aksum and the Stelae and St. Mary of Zion Church, which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant: brought to Ethiopia by Menelik the first…King Solomon’s son with The Queen of Sheba.  We were told the ark was brought out of the church to aid Ethiopia in its 1998-2000 war with Eritrea.  And then a long 2 days journey to Addis Ababa for more opal business and the long flight back to Montana.

Trip started early with a drive through the warm lowlands south of Weldiya.  As we climbed the switchbacks into the mountains leading to Weldiya the temperature dropped and the earthed greened.  We continued to climb for many miles after passing through town and the air became very cool as the road leveled onto a high plateau near 10,000ft. Here were traditional stone, mud and wood homes and small villages along a smooth new 2 lane blacktop road.  After a couple hours of beautiful mountain scenery and lush fields of corn and wheat we turned north, at Bete Hor, onto a rough but passable 2 lane gravel road.  From this point until we arrived in Lalibela traffic was very light and passenger vehicles, the occasional Landcruiser, very rare.  I was sorry to leave Delanta and the opal mines behind…I could almost hear the opal siren’s song…should have left Delanta with wax in my ears as Ulysses sailors did on their long voyage home from the Trojan war.

Upon arrival in Lalibela we checked into the lovely new Mountain View Hotel overlooking the cliffs below town and surrounding mountains…had dinner at The Seven Olives Hotel.  The food here was some of the best western style food we had on our trip…we rate this restaurant 4 stars.  And we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the Mountain View hotel.  The next 2 days were spent in Lalibela touring the rock hewn churches.

Jul 10 2010Addis To Kambolcha

Crossing over lush mountain passes on the road to Kambolcha.

7/7/10: Rose early for a full day of travel and at 9:00AM, left Addis, for Kambolcha.  Steve’s stomach is feeling better and Darlene is pretty much back to normal…but neither of us felt up to eating breakfast…we’re on the Africa diet?  Our vehicle is a relatively new Toyota Land Cruiser with 2 spare tires on a roof rack…is that an indication of road conditions ahead?  Driver is Solomon and our guide is Fitsum…both of these gentlemen were professional, courteous and able to withstand my weird, offbeat sense of humor (Steve).  Solomon darted and weaved through very heavy traffic through Addis…we like to call it combat driving.  I wouldn’t have a chance behind the wheel here.  But out in the countryside, highway driving changes from combat style to animal avoidance style.  Our driver had an almost instinctive reaction to the numerous sheep, donkeys, camels, cattle and goats…knowing which way the animals would turn…steering the Land Cruiser the other direction.  Darlene’s observation: the goats rule the road!  My right foot kept reaching for a nonexistent brake pedal in the back seat.  This is a very different driving style…exciting actually.  We were starting to get used to it…but my right leg was getting a little exercise in the meantime.

Heading out of Addis we began climbing into the cool, moist mountains.  The countryside thinned of car and truck traffic and became green and lush.  Just past Debre Birham we drove through a mountain pass at near 10,000ft.  The scenery was fantastic…thick stands of aromatic gum trees, similar to what we’ve seen during our many trips to Australia, but surrounded with cool crisp Montana like mountains.  And then, before reaching Kambolcha, we dropped down into hot desert country where we saw camels, used instead of donkeys, as the preferred mode of transportation.

Our first night out of Addis was spent at the Sunnyside Hotel in the southern end of Kambolcha.  Very nice bar and dining room, but the rooms weren’t up to what we had seen in Addis or in North America.  With hotel accommodations outside of Addis…if you have a working shower (hot water a plus), toilet that flushes, 2 towels and sound bed…you counted your blessings.  And the blessings in this hotel were a very nicely appointed, clean dining room with very tasty western style food.  This reminded us of a 2006 movie we had seen…”Blood Diamond” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly.  The quote in the movie was an acronym “TIA”…which meant “This Is Africa”…used to express dismay when difficult situations occurred.

Jul 11 2010Bahar Dar And The Blue Nile

Hippopotamus spotted near the shore of Lake Tana in northern portion of The Great Rift Valley of Africa.

7/11/10 Bahar Dar:  Today’s travel was to Bahar Dar on the shores of the largest body of water in Ethiopia…Lake Tana.  We backtracked along the gravel road to Bete Hor then turned west travelling along the same high plateau until we dropped down from the Ethiopian Highlands into the Great Rift Valley where Lake Tana sat like a blue jewel among lush rice fields.  In the central part of the city we checked into the large Papyrus Hotel…an older place badly in need of remodeling.  Perhaps we just got a bad room, but the toilet wouldn’t stop running, the room was full of mosquitoes (not a good thing in a malaria region…no window screens and the mosquito netting didn’t fit the bed?), the sink was plugged and overall quality was very poor.  TIA.

That afternoon, during a light thunderstorm, we drove out to visit the falls of The Blue Nile.  The hiking trail to the falls was muddy due to the rain and the falls were flowing so swiftly that instead of the Blue Nile Falls it was truly the Brown Nile.  The falls were indeed spectacular and I have no doubt that if we had visited on a better day, we would have enjoyed it more. Then back to the hotel for a shower, clean clothes and hot meal…yes.  The silver lining here was the Papyrus Hotel did have good food.

Jul 12 2010Bahar Dar And Gondar

We took a lively ride up the hill along a winding road to the lovely Goha Hotel...a surprise gift from our guide.

7/12/10 Bahar Dar and Gondar: Slept in late that morning and had a very nice leisurely meal at the hotel.  After breakfast we took a wonderful boat trip to a monastery on an island in Lake Tana.  The island was very tropical indeed with monkeys, coffee and fruit trees in abundance.  The coffee beans are the main stay for the inhabitants of the island.  We saw several canoe-like boats made from the Papyrus reed that grew around the lake.  Near shore in a small bay we saw a hippopotamus with his eyes and ears peeking above the water.  Back on shore in Gondar, in a floating restaurant, we had a fantastic lunch of fresh caught Nile perch and local Tilapia.  Darlene learned a couple Amharic words today…ishy=okay and abits=yes.

That afternoon we drove to Gondor and checked into the Lovely Goha Hotel, with its precisely manicured lawn and lovely flowers, on top of a hill overlooking the city.  The room here was wood/brick with lovely tapestries and had an especially deep tub for soaking our old weary bones.  The water wasn’t hot, but it was tepid…good enough for a leisurely soak.  Our guide surprised us with a horse cart ride up the hill to the hotel.  The Israeli Ambassador was staying at the hotel so security was VERY tight that evening.

Later we went out to an American style bar the Golden Gate Bar and had a pizza supper along with great conversation and country/western music.  A lot of Ethiopian-Americans live in Gondar.  They left for the USA during the Marxist-communist rule of the seventies and eighties and after the communists were overthrown, returned to Gondar. They are now building a western style community on the outskirts of Gondar.

Jul 13 2010Gondar And The Simien Mountain Lodge

Unlike the dryer eastern slope of the Simien Mountains the western slope was thick and lush with vegetation and alive with Gelada baboons and monkeys.

7/13/10 Gondar and Simien Mountains: The next morning Darlene was sick again with intestinal problems…so she was back on the Cipro and Loperamide (thank you Dr. Weiss).  Due to Darlene’s illness our guide decided to just do a drive-by of the emperor’s castle and leave early for Simien Mountains National Park.  The drive from Gondar to the Simiens was spectacular and encompassed lowland desert-like country to steep mountains, again with altitudes over 10,000ft.  The Simien Lodge is touted as the highest resort lodge in Africa…which is certainly believable…we could really feel the altitude when walking up hill to our cabin from the main lodge. We checked into the Lodge in early afternoon and were pleasantly surprised by the immaculate and well cared for rooms and western-style amenities.  Each room was a cabin constructed like a traditional round wood/stone Ethiopian style house with a palapa-style thatched roof on the outside but comfortable western-style interiors.  It was cold, raining and very foggy so we couldn’t see the vista of surrounding peaks that day.  Even though it was cold we sat by a roaring fire and had delightful supper at the restaurant in the lodge.  Darlene was feeling better now and we were enjoying our stay at Simien Lodge…this was certainly the high point of our trip.  The cabins were cold…due to the clouds and fog the solar heaters weren’t working…so we went to bed with a couple of hot water bottles provided at the lodge.

Jul 14 2010The Simien Mountains Day 2

7/14/10 Simien Mountains:  We had a wonderful breakfast at the lodge that morning served with several cups of strong Ethiopian coffee…love the coffee here! This day’s itinerary was an outing to spot Ibex and Gelada baboons.   Roads were very muddy and slick and the rain was still a steady drizzle and visibility was no more than 50 yards.  We had picked up a local guide and game warden for our trek so we had a full car.  We weren’t able to find any Ibex but I’m sure if the visibility had improved we would have been successful.  The Gelada were a different matter entirely.  We found a Gelada baboon troop of perhaps 50 individuals and were able to safely walk among them and photograph at leisure.  And, now and then, the clouds would break for a bit and we would be able to see our surrounding and get a photograph of a waterfall or peak.  Back to the lodge for a spot of lunch and then out to spot Ibex and Gelada baboons that afternoon.  It was the same story with the weather that afternoon…heavy rains and poor visibility.  But we were able to find another smaller troop of Gelada.  When we walked back to the lodge that evening for supper we found the weather had broken and the sky gad cleared.  Oh my goodness…the vistas around the lodge were absolutely incredible!  Too bad it was only ½ hour before dark.  Again we had another great supper and back to bed with hot water bottles.  But on the hike back to our cabin we saw, for the first time, just how incredible the stars were at this altitude.  We had plenty of comforters on the bed, but I was still glad I had packed a turtle neck sweater for warmth.

Jul 15 2010Aksum And The Stelae

A young cattle herding boy demonstrates his prowess with the whip during a short stop on a mountain pass near Axsum.

7/15/10-7/16/10 Simien Lodge to Aksum: Again…a great breakfast by a fire at the lodge then we were off to Aksum.  Good to be on the road again.  The weather had continued fair and the drive through the eastern slope of the Simien Mountains was gorgeous.  This side of the mountains obviously was getting the lion’s share of moisture and was lush and tropical.  We traversed steep terrain on rough single lane roads which caused us some concern…guess you could say it was a scary drive!  But we saw several monkeys and another troop of Gelada baboons before we reached the lowlands.  Along this part of our journey we had another flat tire and, of course, I went out to search for agates…and found several beauties…would love a trip to Ethiopia just for agates!  Lots of road construction along this leg of our journey and travel was slow.  But we were both feeling well and our lunch stop was very a nice outdoor restaurant with great food!  I had very tasty roast lamb, rice and a vegetable assortment and a Sprite…they drink a lot of Sprite, Ambo Mineral water and Coke down here.  In Aksum we took on a tour guide and viewed Queen of Sheba’s palace, tombs and the many stelae (obelisk) dating from around 500AD.  The tallest stelae is 82 feet and decorated with relief carvings.  Our lodging here was the Yeha Hotel…clean and had an impressive western style restaurant.  The Internet Café next to the restaurant had 4 computers of which only 2 worked intermittently.  You had to work quick to get computer work done.  But at least they had computers and e-mail was accessible.

Jul 18 2010The Long Road Back To Addis Ababa

A stop was made about 100km north of Addis to rest our backs and, of course, look for agates...a bit pale, but nice memories from Ethiopia.

7/18/10:  The road from Aksum to Addigrat was long and slowed by construction, but the scenery was stunning…enough to make up for the bumps.  Once we hit Highway 1 at Addigrat the road improved.  We were on the east side of the backbone-like mountains that run down the center of Ethiopia, so the climate was warm and dry.  The western slope of the mountains gets the lion’s share of the rain.  We made it into Kambolcha late that night as all the hotels in Dessie were full.  But the Sunnyside Hotel was familiar and we were glad to be in a hotel with western-style restaurant.  And we were given a delicious room with a comfortable bed this time! And hot water! Up early and on the road to Addis.  Late that afternoon we checked into our much loved Kaleb Hotel in Addis.  They remembered us from our previous visit and greeted us warmly at the desk. I couldn’t wait to sit in the bar with a hot cup of espresso coffee. Brought our laundry down to the desk, had supper, checked e-mail, soaked in the tub and climbed into a VERY comfortable bed early.  The next few days we looked at several parcels of incredible crystal opal and bought 19 kilos for shipment back home.  And our local opal friends, knowing my love for Ethiopian coffee, gifted us with 4kg of beans.  We arrived 2 hours early at the airport for a comfortable visit through outgoing customs and had a relaxed spaghetti dinner.  Boarded the plane and were shown more comfortable seats amidships of the plane.  Then Darlene and I began getting stomach distress…her symptoms much more serious than mine.  Note to self: don’t eat at the Addis airport restaurant again. She ended up spending a good portion of that flight in the rear restroom of the plane.  Despite the many illnesses and uncomfortable beds we made many friends and found the Ethiopian people to be among the kindest and most helpful people we’ve ever met.  And the reason we came, to find high quality gem opal and to visit and photograph the opals mines was more than fulfilled.