Thursday, July 18, 2013

Get high in Ethiopia

A helicopter safari in Ethiopia is intense: one minute you're above the clouds, taking in vast plains, mountains, distant clusters of monolithic churches - the next you've swooped in for an eye-popping close-up. Rodney Bolt holds on tight. Photographs by David Crookes
The black kite floated in midair, single feathers on the tips of its wings splayed like fingers as it paused, turned slightly, then dropped earthwards in an instant, to a treasure only it could see. With a beat or two it was up again, circling higher and higher over the Addis Ababa traffic, and away to the hills. The first scene to grab me in a new city, after leaving the hurly-burly of the airport, always makes an indelible mark. In Addis, it was that black kite - and it proved a fitting image for what Ethiopia had in store. Within hours I'd be off on a helicopter safari across the northern highlands: drifting over mountaintops, swooping down to savour some delight below, then flying off across vast, open landscapes. In a region of rough roads and long, dusty journeys, I'd be flitting with ease from ancient, rock-hewn churches to dizzily high escarpments, the chopper reducing travel hours to mere minutes. 

'Ready to go?' asked pilot Ben Simpson, who met us after the short hop from Addis to the northern town of Mekele. Four passengers, travelling light. He ushered us through the departures hall at Mekele airport, and across the tarmac to a nippy-looking blue-and-white Squirrel B3+ helicopter. We put on headphones and strapped ourselves into our seats before he eased the craft off the ground, edged it forward a little, then darted directly upwards, curling over Mekele and out, northwards, through a craggy valley under a powder-blue sky. Within minutes, there was barely a road to be seen - and not a single vehicle - just solitary walkers and little groups with pack mules on dusty tracks, miles and miles apart.
We dropped down to fly low through a gorge, past a sturdy green-and-pink church standing alone on a ledge of rock. Two large birds took off below us, their white-tipped wings flapping heavily to get them airborne. 'Ground hornbills,' said Simpson. 'It's considered lucky to see white on their wings.'
Gelada monkeys, which had come to the river to drink, scattered and clambered up a rock face as we flew overhead. As if taking a small step, the helicopter climbed slightly, skimmed the tops of the cliffs that lined the gorge, and transported us in an instant to another landscape entirely.

Fields of golden grain, patched by deep green and thickets of trees, faded to haze in the distance. Here and there stood a farm compound: a round hut with a conical thatched roof, square outbuildings, a low stone wall. One of the passengers slid back a side door to take photographs; wind whipped through the helicopter as we banked over two men forking straw into a pile, a spray of kernels in the air following the arc of each stroke. Alongside the men, a pair of oxen circled ceaselessly, threshing grain. 'It's biblical,' said Simpson. 'And you saw how clear the river was. That's a testament to the clean way these guys farm.'

Soon, the distant haze began to resolve itself into a jagged mountain range, jutting abruptly from the plain like a line of heavily fortified castles. This was the Gheralta Escarpment, our first stop. We flew closer. The farm compounds below changed colour, taking on the red of Gheralta's sandstone cliffs. Here, houses are built from what's nearest to hand. Simpson took the helicopter right up to a sheer precipice and hovered until we were able to make out the façade of an ancient church - carved into the rock near the top.
The Simien Mountains
A rugged sand road weaves its way like a stream of white ribbon through the scorched earth of The Simien Moutains. Ethiopia, with its own script, its own church (Ethiopian Orthodox, the oldest national Christian church in the world), a unique landscape (vast crowds of sheer-sided, flat-topped mountains) and its own calendar, is unlike anywhere else. A ticket to Ethiopia pretty much guarantees adventure...