Camelot For Real

Ecologically, Ethiopia is a dramatically diverse country, with deserts along the eastern border, tropical forests in the south and extensive Afromontane in the northern and southwestern parts. The Ethiopian Highlands cover most of the territory and have a considerably cooler climate than other regions at similar proximity to the equator. Most of the country’s major cities are located at elevations of around 2000–2500m above sea level, including the historic capitals of Gondar and Axum.

Lake Tana in the north is largest in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. It has many endemic species, notably the gelada, the walia ibex and the Ethiopian wolf.

We’d decided to take Ruby straight to the lake to give both of us a chance to rest up and relax a bit before embarking on any sightseeing. I was absolutely exhausted with PEM – the pushing I’d done to get through the last few days was catching up and klapping me.

A Brief History of Ethiopia part 4:

After Abyssinia lost its access to the Red Sea due to Ottoman incursions and much of the Empire’s southern territory and vassals were ceded to Oromo migrations, Ethiopia started to expand westwards, conquering the Lake Tana area. In the 1630s Emperor Fasilides founded the new capital of Gondar, marking the start of a golden age known as the ‘Gondarine period’ which saw relative peace, the successful integration of the Oromo and a flourishing culture.

The murder of Iyasu I in 1706 heralded the decline of the Solomonic dynasty and the rise of the vassal dukedoms. The overthrow of Iyoas I by Ras Mikael Sehul in 1769 marked the beginning of the Zemene Mesafint (Age of Princes). Over the next 86 years, 23 emperors were anointed in see-saw fashion – many as puppets – as regional warlords vied for power. The long game of musical thrones was finally brought to an end by the triumphant emergence of talented military campaigner Kassa Hailu, a Robin Hood figure who became Emperor Tewodros II (1855–1868), the founder of the modern Ethiopian state. He sought to restore Solomonic hegemony and unify and stabilise the Empire.

His determined commitment to his vision – he was undefeated, committing suicide at the Battle of Magdala rather than surrender to the British expedition – has made him a hero of the nation, symbol of defiant Ethiopian independence. There were statues of Tewedros in the central traffic circle of Gondar and at the airport, and images of him were ubiquitous on the back of tuktuks.

* * *

At 3.30am on Thurs 29th March I woke and tried not to panic because I’d received no Whatsapp from Ruby in Addis confirming she’d got her visa on arrival at the airport. I just had to pray that she’d had time between landing at 10pm and transferring to her domestic flight at 2am. We found out later that the flight was 2 hours late so she’d had no time to do anything but scoot straight through.

We drove down to Gondar airport for 8am, and I started doing T’ai Chi outside next to the statue of Emperor Tewedros. We weren’t allowed inside so I didn’t relax till I saw her beaming face amongst the passengers pouring out 40 minutes later. Ruby ran to greet and gave me the hugest hug, so hard and for so long, I sobbed. Her Dad did the same.

She immediately brought her energy and laughter into the truck. After breakfast fruit, we set off on the 60km journey to Lake Tana, all together in the cab with PJ on my lap. We were ALL SO HAPPY. Zola was also beaming, and kept catching my eye. He just loves her ribbing him. No one can get away with it like Big Sis.

It was conspicuously poorer out here. People on the road all seemed to be subsistence farmers or herders wearing threadbare wraps. There were hardly any shops in the settlement half way. At Gorgora we missed the turn because it was so small, and Sampson walked off to check we were on the right track. He was away so long, Ruby opened her suitcase and pulled out lunch: a huge packet of gourmet crêpes made lovingly for us by her Oncle Pierrot of the Voulez-Vous Foodtruck. Oh my word, they were heavenly! We heated them up and I devoured my gluten-free buckwheat ones with avo and tomato, jam and chocolate spread. I felt loads better by the time Sampson returned with a helper to hacksaw a tree blocking our route.

The Big Green Truck squeezed down the very small road to Tim & Kim’s Village on the edge of the lake. It was the perfect place to exhale: a haven of peace, sprinkled with purple jacaranda blossom, scarlet hibiscus and birdsong. PJ was loving it. Ruby enjoyed helping Dutch owner Kim with her dogs Bari and Narnar.

It was a huge relief to have Ruby in front of my eyes, to be able to see she was OK. It made me realise how much I’d been fretting to to keep in contact with her online with such poor connection all through Sudan and Ethiopia. Instead of worrying about her, she was next to me, making me giggle with delight at her thought processes.

She told us that on the plane to Addis she sat next to a model. This elegant being, who lives in Marseille but was born in Gabon, was thrilled to hear Ruby had travelled to both places. Their conversation turned to racism in France. The model told the story of how she went to Paris for the weekend to stay with a friend whose 8 year old daughter abruptly asked “How did you get so black?”
Without missing a beat, she retorted “From eating chocolate”.
Horrified, the girl lowered the bar she was chomping from her mouth and said “I’m never having it again”!

There was of course a grand present opening: mint chocs and fabulous Batman tops for Zola, stacks of ricecakes and gluten-free pasta for me, biltong, gaffer tape and surf mags for Sampson. Ruby said she loves the process of planning, buying and giving gifts far more than receiving them – she’s so like her grandmother Joy in every way.

Lake Tana is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve in the Amhara region. It’s 84 x 66 km and host to about 230 species of birds including more than 80 wetland birds, and even some hippos. There are several monasteries on islands in the lake, some the burial sites of emperors.

We put our swimming cossies on and went down to the lake – I was thrilled to be able to undertake such an uneven walk. It was much warmer here than in the mountains, which was helping my strength. The water was colder than expected, at about 21/22˚C, so I just paddled, but the dynamic dolphin trio set off swimming to the island that was just within sight.

I found out later that the reed boats made by the fisherman that you can see propped up on the island are called tankwa and last about 3 months. (The zoom on my Nikon, and the steadiness of my arm on this occasion, were both impressive.)

One moment I was applying sunscreen; five minutes later, dark clouds had gathered and the wind was whipping waves out of nowhere. The adventurers returned just in time to get back to the truck before the storm broke. The nap I crashed out into was more like oblivion – finally my tense body had relaxed enough to let go.

Sampson made us a tinned sardine supper with cabbage and rice, and we celebrated our reunion with Doctor Who, Dairy Milk and toffees. I was cuddling my husband; PJ was already on Ruby’s chest. We couldn’t stop grinning at each other.

Those were such lovely days at Lake Tana. Ruby’s arrival made such a change, and her presence made me realise just how much she has inherited her Dad’s sense of fun. The awareness that every moment of every day can be fun. The difference he made when he came into my life more than 20 years ago, she makes now. Ruby brings the sunshine. Her infectious peels of laughter are peerless. Her delight in small animals, in silliness, in science. Her boundless enthusiasm.

I was so chuffed I was strong enough to do my own handwashing once again. It was the first time I’d done the whole lot since Europe. Sampson rewarded me with fried haloumi and tomato galettes!

The second time we walked down to the lake, Zola brought the SUP. After he’d paddled about round bird island, I put on a shortie wetsuit and Ruby helped me get on the board and lie down. We floated off to explore the coves between the reeds. It was soooo relaxing, so quiet. Like Beaverlac but with no one else there. 

There were very few fellow guests, only a departing Italian family from Malaga, also with a biological daughter and adopted son – from Ethiopia – as well as a grandma in Torre del Mar!

Ruby brought me a bucket of hot water and a jug and helped me wash my hair – I hadn’t felt so clean in months, or so cared for. ‘Salon hour’ continued as she insisted on tweezing my eyebrows and giving Zola a facemask and coconut oil hair treatment. I sat in Kim’s restaurant boma and wrote one of their beautiful photo postcards to Ruby, thanking her for the gifts of love and joy she had brought us. It arrived at school 5 months later.

By Saturday morning, I managed a walk through the jacaranda up the hillside, and was rewarded with a wonderful view over the whole village and across another couple of bays. It was too misty for vista pics, but I enjoyed capturing images of the flocks of tiny blue birds with rouge on their cheeks. I was sad Sampson never considers walking with me the way he would with Monte.

On our final visit to the lake, it was so cold it took Ruby ages to get in; I was very proud I screwed up my courage and got my shoulders under before she did. It was so refreshing and I was most gratified that my metabolism was strong enough to handle it.

When we said our goodbyes and thank yous to Kim, she explained that there were no eggs available to buy in town because, in orthodox Ethiopia, all meals are strictly vegan during the 55 day Lenten fasting period. On Sunday 1st April, halfway back to Gondar, I felt blessed to be awoken by the loud chatter of nosy shepherds. It was so chilly on the way back up to the mountains, PJ came to snuggle inside my sleeping bag. Unable to get online, I was unsure if it was Easter Sunday here as it was in South Africa.

The Big Green Truck drove on, avoiding the large number of humped Abyssinian Shorthorned Zebu cattle being driven along the road and, once in town, hordes of white draped people coming from church with thin strips of palm tied round their foreheads.

At the mini-market Sampson was brought nearly to tears by a woman asking only 10Br (R4) for 2 kilos of potatoes. He gave her double. Ruby was battling a sinus infection, but I persuaded her not to stay in the Taye Hotel carpark but come with us to see the ancient Emperors’ compound. We took umbrellas as parasols for shade on the humid walk up there.

Ghebbi is an Amharic word for a compound or enclosure. The Fasil Ghebbi or Royal Enclosure containing Emperor Fasilides‘ castle has been described as the ‘Camelot of Africa’. It says a lot about my expensive Western education that I knew more about the mythical King Arthur and his court than I did about this real ‘King of Kings’ nəgusä nägäst Fasilides.

Without internet connection at the time, we only had a paragraph in the Lonely Planet Africa book to go on. I’m making up for my ignorance now, and it’s proving a great challenge, trying to distill the wealth of history of this proud African nation. While researching several centuries of Ethiopian emperors, it struck me forcefully how heinous is the obliteration by colonial forces of the opportunity of a similarly rich history for neighbouring countries. How poorer we all are for it.

Camelot is just a legend; Gondar is real.

(P.S. In more than one version of the medieval myth, King Arthur’s Camelot is eventually razed to the ground by the treacherous King Mark of Cornwall, who was based on a ruler of Kernow in the 6th century.)

Until the 16th century, the Solomonic Emperors of Ethiopia usually had no fixed capital, but instead lived in tents in temporary royal camps as they moved around their realms while their family, bodyguard and retinue devoured surplus crops and cut down nearby trees for firewood. Emperor Fasilides broke with this custom to found the city of Gondar. Tradition states that a buffalo led the Emperor Fasilides to a pool beside the Angereb, where an old and venerable hermit told the Emperor he would locate his capital there. Fasilides had the pool filled in and built his castle on that same site.

Fasilides commanded the construction of an imposing edifice inside a boundary wall with 12 gates. Subsequent emperors built their own structures. The Fasil Ghebbi complex includes Fasilides’ castle Fasil Gemb, Iyasu I‘s palace, Dawit III‘s Hall, a banqueting hall, stables, Empress Mentewab‘s castle, a chancellery, library and three churches: Asasame Qeddus Mikael, Elfign Giyorgis and Gemjabet Mariyam. The site was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

It was far more imposing than we could have imagined. The buildings were so… castle-y! The thick stone walls were proper crenellated! There were impressively high ceilings, huge wooden beams, vast windows, massive wooden shutters. It was Lord of the Rings meets Hogwarts, although the glowering skies made it look more like the film set for a dramatisation of a Gothic novel. I was so glad Ruby came with us – she was reveling in it. Like me, she wanted to make sure we saw Everything.

The compound reminded me of Gjirokaster Castle I’d walked round in Albania and Kenilworth Castle that I’d visited on school trips as a kid in UK – both built over several centuries in the middle ages.

We were glad of our umbrellas as heavy plops of rain that began dropping from the purple sky became hail. We managed to make it back to the truck before the second pummeling downpour of the biggest iceballs I’d ever seen. The hammering on the roof was deafening. The teens were squealing like toddlers. Sampson had to batten down the hatches – literally – while I cooked a pot of carrot, spinach, sweetcorn, chickpea and tomato soup and mashed potato to warm us up.

 * * *

One hundred and fifty years before, Emperor Tewedros committed suicide on Easter Monday, April 13th 1868, as British troops stormed the citadel of Magdala.

A lock of his hair taken by British soldiers was returned to the Ethiopian government by the National Army Museum in 2019. But not his looted treasure: two gold crowns, crosses and chalices in gold, silver and copper, a huge number of royal and ecclesiastic robes, medieval swords and shields, hundreds of tabots, the great Imperial silver Negarit war drum and more than 500 ancient parchment manuscripts that took 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry away. They still reside in the British Museum, the Bodleian and private collections across Europe, despite repeated requests by AFROMET to restore them to their native land.

Tewedros’ son Prince Alemayethu was also taken, alone, aged 7, to England and died there aged 18. A formal request by the Ethiopian president in 2007 to Queen Elizabeth II to return his remains, interred just outside the chapel of Windsor Castle in 1879, has yet to be honoured.

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