Staring At The Faces of 104 Angels – After A Lonely Ride To Gonder

It’s blissful riding through the heart of Amhara country toward Gonder and the Simien Mountains. In many ways, this is what I always dreamed sub-sahara Africa would be like outside the ubiquitous wildlife and roaming wildebeest of the south. Having yet been to Sudan and Egypt, but safe to say that Ethiopia is the ultimate African to Middle East segue. The culture is rich, terrain verdant in points, desolate and desert in others and the people as curious, friendly and helpful as anywhere. But here the language take a turn and the alphabet soon is unfamiliar. There’s been hardly European influence other than in some of the food. This is Africa somewhat virgin and raw. And I’ve been bitten.


He tried to put his sticker on his dula (stick) but it wouldn’t work. So he found the next best place.

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The scars I’m told are from tatoo / body ornaments done in rights to passage ceremonies. She was tending goats with her sister when I stopped to say hi and offer a bite.


The faces of Ethiopia never cease to tell stories. Most happy. Some sad.

There’s something serene and peaceful watching livestock graze in nearby fields. The herders with their canes or dulas sit patiently as the sun moves the day and each offering a huge wave and white-toothed smile as I slowly cruise by, often stopping just to share a smile, a small candy or a handshake. Riding alone means no need to worry if you’re holding someone up, nor if you just want to experience a zen moment and get lost in the smell of the environs, you just go. No worries. Often people ask me if I get lonely. My answer is no. There are so many faces and voices wherever I go that lonely is never an option. Do I feel alone? Oh sure. Experiencing such beauty, sights and the crux of humanity is wonderful. And when something makes me giddy, awes me or inspires sometimes I turn and look but come up empty when wishing to share that fleeting moment. Then again, that’s why I write these stories from the road. I’m sharing them with you. So thanks for riding along.

Gonder, and like many places in Ethiopia you’ll see it spelled in more than one way, some have referred to as “Africa’s Camelot” with ancient stone castles and palaces fit for kings. So it’s with much anticipation and expectation I made the ride through fertile lands to what at one point was the capital of Ethiopia under King Fasilades in the early 17th century. But before arriving to this mythical town in the mountains, I ran into two Russians on motorcycles who’d just left Gondar a few hours before.


I met two Russian motorcyclists from Moscow on an adventure to Cape Town. Here Kubortian poses next to his V-Strom



Alexey and his KTM loaded for Africa.

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We attracted the usual dose of curiosity seekers and small hands looking for Birr.

Alexey and Kubortian left Russia several months earlier and were headed to Cape Town. Curious about the Sudan portion of my journey and preoccupied with the limited time I had, they shared with me their experience and the road conditions all the way to Wadi Halfa. “You can do it in three days,” Alexey confided when speaking of the route from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, but plan on four, especially if you’re doing it alone.” They suggested stopping at the Blue Nile Sailing Club in Khartoum to see if any 4×4 overlanders were headed that way. “It’s better to be with someone, it’s very remote and lots of sand and corrugation.” Music to my ears. The stretch they’re talking about goes about 500 miles from Khartoum to Lake Nassar. Four days going 500 miles didn’t sound appetizing. But everyone I’ve met who’d come down that route along the Nile said it was spectacular.

Soon we were surrounded by nomad sheep herders, and local villagers. Kubortian offered a similar trick that might stop my fork seal from leaking and suggested I keep a rag zip-tied to prevent more debris from getting in and possibly permanent damaging my forks. I hoped to get to Khartoum and find a decent workshop where I could replace the seal. If not, Luxor or Cairo might be my only option. I just hope it’ll last that it’ll hold that much longer.

In Gonder, which is a somewhat sprawling large village with a dense piazza in the center of town. Though for more than 100 years it served as the capital, today it’s little more than a trading center for the surrounding agriculture and livestock farms. It’s also home to a good-sized university and a couple important historical and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


The man from Gondar I found outside the church.

I find the hostel that Gareth and Helen recommended and where I’d find their bikes securely sleeping and parked Doc next to them. With several hours of daylight left, I decided to walk to Debhran Berhan Selassie Church. Surrounded by a stone wall with twelve towers, each representing one of the apostles and a larger tower at the entrance gate representing Christ, the original church, whereby the foundation is competing with the grass, was circular and build in the late 1600’s, but was later reconstructed in a rectangular style was built in the 18th century. Interestingly, some historians believe that the Emperor designed the church with this symbolism in mind because he planned to move the Ark of the Covenant from Aksum to Gonder, though this never happened.


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The entire complex was surrounded by a stone wall with 12 towers (see one behind shadow of trees) representing the Twelve Apostles

While the paintings I was privy to check out at the monasteries on Lake Tana were magnificent, I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and the color and artwork of the massive murals covering all walls and ceilings of “The Trinity at the Mount of Light” which is what Debre Berhan Selassie means roughly translated. As it was late in the day the usual gathering of guides outside the front gate were missing in action, I was asked to join a group who entered just before me including a few students from London who were staying at my hotel. That’s why I know there are 104 cherub angels on the ceiling of this small but historically significant and artistically magical church. Not one of their faces shares the same expression. Without getting into the tiny details, safe to say the paintings in this church tell the many stories of Ethiopian Saints and Martyrs. I stayed much longer than the tour group just gazing at the ceiling and then mingling with the priests and the locals hanging around the complex.


Here are some of the 104 Angels who looked down on me as I gazed in wonder.


No church in Ethiopia wouldn’t be complete without a large painting of its patron saint – Saint George – here dutifully slaying a dragon to rescue yet another damsel distressed in a tree.



Story telling through pictures.

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