By Gordon Rattray

The following are two stories from Gordon’s 2003 journey to Ethopia. For more information, photos, and other (truly) far-flung travel adventures visit his site Able Travel!

Why on earth would anyone want to go to Ethiopia?

That’s a question I’ve heard often enough, and probably one you are asking now… Images of starvation, flies and dust crossing your mind? It’s true, Africa’s tenth largest country has some major problems, but Ethiopia is also stunningly beautiful, with green mountains, vast lakes and wild rivers. It’s the most fertile land in East Africa, and easily the friendliest country I’ve visited.

Potholes and fat backside

But not surprisingly, it doesn’t rank up there with Australia or Sweden as far as accessibility goes. There are no flat-floored buses running through downtown Addis Ababa, no shiny clean toilets with easy-grab handles and no ‘blue badge’ parking scheme. In fact, diddlysquat comes to mind when thinking of the number of wheelchair friendly features in Ethiopia. Pavements are treacherous, roads are rarely tar-sealed (even when they are, there are potholes deep enough to swallow a bus) and to avoid flooding during tropical rainstorms, most buildings are at least two steps up from street level. We found one purpose-built accessible toilet – in the international airport – and our ‘least accessible toilet’ prize goes to the Lido hotel in Addis, which had a doorway that would probably have been too narrow for my backside even without the wheelchair!

‘4 o’clock in the morning or after midnight?’

However, none of these problems are insurmountable. You don’t need to be able to speak Amharic to ask for help in Ethiopia; being white and in a wheelchair is enough to ensure that you will be noticed. Finding two guys strong enough and willing to lift you into a Landcruiser is never difficult – getting them to slow down long enough to understand that the wheelchair doesn’t go with you just might be! Amharic is the official language of the country. Similar to Arabic, it’s not one you’re going to pick up in a couple of weeks with a phrasebook and since English isn’t widely spoken, extended conversations are always confusing, sometimes hilarious and often pointless! If you really want a challenge, try asking the time in Ethiopia. Their day begins at sunrise (normally around 6am western time), meaning that our 7am is their 1 o’clock (one hour into the day), 10am is 4 o’clock and so on. There was one instance where we were arranging a taxi for 4am to get an early flight, and after a long drawn-out discussion that was going nowhere, we were finally asked ‘is that 4 o’clock in the morning or 4 o’clock after midnight?’ Oh, and as if that’s not enough, it’s now 1997 there – Ethiopia has it’s own calendar with thirteen months in a year! All these peculiarities are typical of the country; it is quite unique.

The Plan…

We only had three weeks to try to explore a land bigger than France and Spain together. It would have taken months to do it any justice so we decided to divide our time between Addis Ababa (the capital), Gondar (in the historic north) and Arba Minch in the lush, tropical south of the country. After many emails and some Internet research, I had promises of reasonably accessible and pretty cheap accommodation in all three places, and I had found two people interested in doing my personal care.

Personal Assistants

Neither of the assistants had experience of this type of work, but despite that, they both quickly got used to my grumpy ways and actually seemed to quite enjoy it! Dessie was eighteen and had just finished high school in Gondar. He was trying to find work as a waiter and whenever he could, he’d follow Arsenal on one of Gondar’s relatively new satellite TV links in a local café. If Dessie was fit and strong when we arrived then he was a whole lot fitter and stronger when we left, after a week of pushing me up and down the hills of Gondar. Meselch (pronounced Messeletch) was a single mum from Arba Minch, where we spent the latter half of our holiday. Not only was she an excellent personal assistant, but she also performed a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony for us (coffee originated in Ethiopia) and she introduced me to the secrets of the mildly intoxicating plant ‘chat’, the young leaves of which are chewed to ‘stimulate the brain’. Ethiopian beer tasted better and had a similar effect.

Sleeping with lizards

Because of the fairly high costs of flights from Europe and the cost of 4wd hire there, we wanted to keep accommodation cheap. That isn’t difficult in Ethiopia. Apart from Addis Ababa, most small towns don’t have Western hotels, so we stayed in local hotels, which (even at inflated tourist prices) were rarely more than $15-$20 U.S. per night for a double/twin room. I’d already arranged most of the accommodation in advance, and in general it was quite adequate – if you don’t mind being carried up and down flights of steps, sleeping with lizards, watching praying mantises pacing the walls and of course, the occasional power cut. There was only one of the pre-booked places that we knocked back – it was just about clean enough but even if I’d have been able to get into the bathroom there was barely room to swing a catheter!

Gourmet Ethiopia

‘Will there be food on the flight?’ is a common question posed to Ethiopian Airlines. Not only is there food, but Ethiopia has easily the most interesting, tasty and varied cuisine south of the Sahara. The staple crop is a grain called ‘tef’, which is made into large, grey and half-fermented savoury pancakes called ‘injera’. These maybe don’t sound great and they look like spongy old foam rubber, but when served with ‘wat’ they are delicious. Normally the meal will consist of one massive injera dolloped with piles of this ‘wat’, which is a spicy meat or vegetable stew. And when I say spicy, I mean burn-the-fingertips-spicy since you eat with your hands! Ethiopians like it hot; indeed, I’ve seen them smothering our bland European dishes with Tabasco sauce and chillies to try to give it some bite!

What’s to see?

If it’s the classic Kenyan lion safari that you want to do, then best go to Kenya. A common myth among Ethiopians is that their massive herds of wild animals fled south several years ago, running from the fires that intermittently ravage the grasslands. There may be some truth in this, although I think the real reasons for the demise of the populations of grazing beasts are hunting and the need for farmland. What Ethiopia does have – as a result of it’s unique terrain and high altitude – is a huge number of endemic species of birds, animals and plants. In the northern Simien Mountains we saw ‘bleeding heart’ Gelada Baboons, (so named because of the patch of bright red on their breast), in Nechisar National Park we spooked a Swayne’s Hartebeest and endemic birds are literally everywhere.

And if, when you think ‘Africa’, you just think ‘wildlife,’ then think again. Ethiopia has castles, palaces and fortresses hundreds of years old, churches rivalling anything in Europe and a human history comparable to Egypt. Apart from the fact that the Great Rift Valley is recognised as the birthplace of man, Ethiopians believe that their long line of ruling dynasties can be traced back more than 3000 years to Emperor Menelik, who’s birth was (allegedly) the result of the Queen of Sheba’s holiday fling in Jerusalem with King Solomon…

The Missionary Position

The final thoughts from our holiday were that no matter how ‘poor’ the country, practically anything is possible. In fact, the more we attempted to do, the more we saw the best in African improvisation. Manpower and innovation were often needed for lifting through stone doorways and up steps, but when we tried to reach the Blue Nile Falls, where this massive river plunges 150 feet over an escarpment, extra measures were called for. In order to cross the ‘bush and boulder field’ en route to the waterfall, I was thrown shoulder-high on a couple of wooden poles and carried like the Scottish preacher David Livingstone. I’m sure that’s not what’s meant by ‘missionary position’ but it certainly was the most comfortable way of getting there!


Just before the wooden poles arrived, I had one of those moments when you realise that things are so NOT in control that there’s no point in worrying any more. We were in northern Ethiopia, attempting to get to the legendary Blue Nile Falls, which were first ‘discovered’ by Scottish explorer James Bruce in 1770 and are still so far off the tourist trail that they’re practically not on any trail – certainly not any trail navigable by wheelchair.

Since leaving the lakeside town of Bahar Dar at sunrise, our mode of transport had been whittled down from an old diesel Land Cruiser to a boat, and now finally to boots and wheels. To say ‘wheels’ is an exaggeration – we had abandoned the four-wheel-drive at the edge of the Nile and in the next hour I probably rolled less than ten metres. The rest of the time was spent with up to ten people, lifting, levering and lowering me into the riverboat, and then after we crossed the Cairo-bound water they manhandled me in similar fashion onto the opposite shore. And that’s when we hit the trail. Surrounded by towering termite mounds, spiky acacia thorns, boulders and ditches, it looked as if we were going no further.

Africans, however, have a tremendous capacity for improvisation, whether it’s fashioning shoes from old car tyres or building insulated houses from coca-cola tins and mud. If someone is too ill to walk to hospital, they get carried – usually shoulder high – in a chair. Therefore I shouldn’t have been surprised when after a debate in Amharinga, four men suddenly seized my chair and assuming I was aware of the next move, they threw me skywards onto their shoulders. If my throat hadn’t closed up through shock, I’d have screamed. As it was, only the last squeak escaped, and I realised in amazement that I was still upright! Upright maybe, but far from relaxed. I was lurching forward over rocks and bushes with the posture and gait of a first-time horse rider.

That was the moment I gave up worrying.

We managed about fifty metres like this before it was decided that refinements to the system were required. A young girl was sent racing to the nearest village for poles and within twenty minutes I was aloft again, with the wheels removed and my chair balanced on two strong lengths of eucalyptus. We were going unnervingly fast over the rough ground, and the whole experience was made even more unsettling by the silence of the contraption. Only the creaking of the poles and the excited chatter of birds around me could be heard above the arguing of my ‘bearers’ about the best route to follow. Despite the niggling feeling that it was a bit colonial to be lording around Africa on people’s shoulders, I actually began to enjoy my new perspective on life, ten feet up!

This ability of Africans to ‘just get on with it’ pervaded our holiday. Unlike Europe for example, there are no aisle chairs in Ethiopian airports to take wheelchair users into the aeroplane. This task falls to whoever happens to be around at the time. In Arba Minch I just had to wait until Solomon had finished fuelling the twin-engined plane, then he and the co-pilot were quite delighted to carry me to my seat. In Gondar my trousers slid alarmingly down during my undignified extrication from the fuselage, much to the horror of the missionary couple from Denmark who were waiting patiently – bibles in hand – on the tarmac. Travelling by road was equally treacherous. Four-wheel-drives are essential for Ethiopia, and their extra height meant that I had to be lifted in and out of the car, normally with crowds of bemused and sometimes amused onlookers, and therefore no hope of privacy should my bare backside have become exposed!

As we approached the falls, the calls of forest birds were gradually being drowned by the thunderous sound of ‘Tis Abay’, meaning ‘Smoke of the Nile’. Here the water plummets a hundred and fifty feet over a precipice before relaxing back into a meander towards Khartoum on its five thousand mile journey north through the Sahara to the Mediterranean. It is a stunning sight. A permanent rainbow is created in the billowing clouds of spray, and tropical plants thrive in the lush microclimate. Deafened and drenched I sat at the foot of the falls, with my poles propped on rocks. The only other tourist there, an Ethiopian, came over and shook my hand furiously, grinning with droplets of Nile water running down his face.

‘I’m happy…’ he shouted above the noise, ‘that you want to visit my country.’

He asked why I could not walk and I explained that I had dived into shallow water and broken my neck. He screwed his face in agony as if he had just done the same.

‘Ooooooh, I’m sorry.’ He shook his head in sympathy, and then asked, ‘But when will you get better?’

I told him that there is no cure for spinal injury yet and he winced again, this time with more feeling as if this was the fatal blow, and he shook his head once more in resignation.

His reaction was typical. Of course, Africa has more than it’s fair share of wheelchair users (or those who would use a wheelchair if one were available), but when disability affects a farangi (white man) it is unbelievable. How can it be that there’s still something incurable to Western medicine? There is never a shortage of sympathy, usually closely followed by offers of help and advice. Often, prayers will be promised to whichever is the preferred deity, and sometimes witchdoctors and their mystical powers are suggested. Now, I’m not completely disbelieving – partially from a fear of what might befall me if I were to scorn these suggestions – but I’d first need to see proof of the African Lourdes before allowing any sacrifices to be made on my behalf!

Dripping wet, we finally emerged from the foot of the falls and climbed the escarpment to be immediately treated to some musical entertainment by a local duet – I took them to be brother and sister. He was playing a massinko, a violin like instrument, which despite having only one string is surprisingly tuneful. She was dancing ‘eskesta’ and if I hadn’t been blessed with the rhythm of a cold mince pie then I could have danced with her, as eskesta dancing involves mainly the head and shoulders in a jerking and vibrating movement designed to tantalise and seduce. Ethiopia is a bit like that. Not only is it a country of incredible natural beauty and unsurpassed hospitality, but one bursting with culture and desperate to be seen.