Ethiopia: Into the Simien Mountains

Five minutes drive into the Simien National Park we came across our first group of Gelada monkeys. Our driver shrugged when we asked to get out. What was an amazing sight for us was, we now know, just part of everyday life 3,000m up in the mountains.

Our guide, the wonderful Eshete Berju, was thrilled at our enthusiasm. He urged us to go nearer.

“Are you certain?” I asked, looking nervously at the 100 or more baboons frantically tearing at grass whilst grunting at each other. Posing for a photo we were urged nearer and nearer by Eshete and by the total lack of reaction, it was clear the monkeys didn’t give a monkeys about visitors!

It was a glorious introduction to the Simien Mountains and hanging out with Geladas became a necessary and magical part of each day’s trekking; and one that never bored.

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The trip up to the Park was easy and fun. It started really when we got to Debark, to the park office. Craggy, rugged rangers hung around outside, ancient guns slung over their shoulders like troubadours would wear their guitars. Assigned to us for the four day trip was Fantoun, whose museum piece wouldn’t scare a five year old, let alone a hungry leopard. In the truck, Kate asked: “When was the last time you fired it?” Eshete translated and everyone laughed – Fantoun, our driver, Messi the chef and his sidekick. “Well?” Prompted Kate.

“Oh, he’s never shot it,” declared Eshete, seemingly amazed.

“So how does he know it works?”

“Well, he takes it apart and puts it back together all the time, so he knows all the parts work.”

Our laughter set them off again. It was going to be a fun trip.

Debark is at 2,800m and our first camp was 3,250m.

Altitude Guide to our camps and peaks.
Altitude Guide to our camps and peaks.

It’s not much of an elevation but when you’re trying to acclimatise the heart starts to pound and the breath shorten the very second that a path heads uphill. Thankfully that first day, nothing was too steep. Once the driver left us to trek, taking Messi and his assistant onto camp, Eshete, Fantoun, Kate and I set off for a few hours to walk to camp.

Just twenty minutes in, Eshete chatted to a couple of children and then pointed off track into a flat, almost treeless plain.

“There is a big group of geladas across there.” We couldn’t see them but we set off. It took me a long time to spot them but when I did, I was astounded. Hundreds of them. Hundreds. We had lunch with them. Geladas have absolutely no interest in the food we eat, so we were sitting surrounded by them. It was weird. And amazing. The noise is fascinating, as mostly it’s the sound of constant tearing and munching of grass. Every now and then, there would be a minor squabble about nothing and a minor game of chase, but mostly just tearing and munching, munching and tearing.

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Eventually we set off again and the afternoon was filled with great views and birds of prey. As Kate said, “The Simien Mountains: a great place to be a buzzard.” I think I could watch birds coast the thermals for hours on end. It was hard to tear ourselves away from each and every cliff face.

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We arrived at camp to find our tent up and a camp table laid out with flasks of tea and coffee. Popcorn arrived within minutes. It’s the snack of choice in Ethiopia – it’s part of the coffee ceremony that takes place all over the country in most houses, hostelries and hotels.

The view just beyond our campsite was fantastic; a gorge so peaceful that the only sounds were bees (do they have bees that high up or is this a figment of my imagination?) and the occasional distant chatter from the campsite. It was a lovely place to sit as the light mellowed.

The view from the campsite
The view from the campsite

The minute the sun started to sink, however, it got cold. Suddenly we were very grateful for the fire in the cooking hut and layering up, we rushed inside. Expecting a simple supper, we were staggered at what Messi had achieved. He had one big gas ring and about eight different pots. Vast quantities of vegetable soup were followed by a main course of about six different veggies and pasta. As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, we had banana fritters for pud. I had been expecting very simple one pot cooking on the trip. I couldn’t have been more delighted.

Messi the chef - a genius of the cooking hut and a nice bloke to boot.
Messi the chef – a genius of the cooking hut and a nice bloke to boot.

And to top it off, we were given a hot water bottle each to take back to our little tent.

Not bad at all for a first day in the mountains.

For Labour voters: now’s the time to switch from passive to active

Voter turnout is on 66% - 34% of eligible adults can't be bothered to take part.
Voter turnout is on 66% – 34% of eligible adults can’t be bothered to take part.

Although this blog is primarily for travel and photography, today I have to break with the norm, in the name of democracy.

Like many of my friends, I have spent the last couple of days feeling shell-shocked that the Conservative Party was re-elected with a majority. Those of us who voted Labour because we believe it is the party that stands the best chance of promoting social justice, protecting human rights, that will strive to maintain the NHS, work towards inclusive growth and address poverty, have been in a whirlpool of dread. We fear that the next five years will bring a return to the brutal days of Thatcherite Britain. Those were dark days that saw the persecution of people of ‘non straight’ sexuality, caused large numbers of teenagers to become homeless, saw the NHS ripped into, saw social housing stock sold off, and the neediest in society left to sink.

We share a dread of how the EU referendum is not just the start of an era of isolationism but also a fundamental betrayal of the generation that witnessed war followed by decades of co-operation.

We fear that the proposed Bill of Rights and Responsibilities – set to replace the Human Rights Act – is constitutionally dubious and marks a denial of the universality of human rights.

We realise with a sickening pit in our stomachs that TIPP looks inevitable and will (to borrow from Will Hutton) allow foreign companies to ‘plunder our national jewels’.

Personally, I don’t trust the Tories with the economy. The reduction in unemployment they have achieved is a) small and b) not directly related to an increase in prosperity for the least well off. Many of those jobs are part-time and badly paid. GDP is low and growth too.

And so the list of dreads goes on.

Over the last few years many of us Labour voters have sadly shaken our heads and bemoaned that ‘they’ chose the wrong Miliband; that Ed was unelectable. This morning I woke up to a fact that should have been obvious to me. A fact that I would urge all fellow L-voters to consider carefully.

‘They’ will be electing a new leader soon. If Labour is ever to stand a chance of being an electable party again, the right leader is critical. Every Labour voter has the opportunity to switch from passive to active at this precise moment. We can become members of the party, read about the candidates, hear what they have to say, get educated and decide who will do the best job of turning around the party’s – and therefore the country’s – hopes.

All we have to do is switch from being voters (passive) to members (active). I realised this morning that if we don’t participate in choosing the leader of the party we want to govern us, then we don’t have the right to moan if ‘they’ elect the wrong leader and fail to reform.

If I fail to switch, then I am no better than non-voters at the general election who complain bitterly that they don’t like the government that has been elected, or the system that saw them elected.

Petitions and protests will be there always as a vent for our frustrations. But we only have one opportunity to shape the direction of ‘they’ for the next five to ten years. That opportunity is now. That opportunity is to become ‘we’. I’ve joined the Labour Party today. I’m opting for participation because protests and petitions aren’t enough.

Back to Africa: falling in love with Ethiopia

A cold, refreshing beer
© Carole Scott 2015

The Amber beer was cold and refreshing; our host’s smile warm and welcoming. Twelve hours into our two-week trip to Ethiopia and I was already feeling embraced by its people. From the minute we stepped off the ‘plane to be directed by a smiling airport official, I had a good feeling about Ethiopia; a feeling that told me this trip wouldn’t just be about the wildlife, landscapes and history.

With every beautiful smile and twinkly-eyed laugh, I fell a little more in love with Ethiopia.

By the time we reached Gonder and Mayleko Lodge, we were ready for that beer. While the domestic terminal of Bole Airport in Addis Adaba had proven surprisingly comfortable, thanks to its body-curve recliners that allowed us to snooze, 24 hours of travelling were taking their toll. A spacious cabin with big beds was just what we needed as we adjusted from British winter to African summer. A beautifully quiet place, 16km outside Gonder itself, Mayleko Lodge is a complex of about ten cabins, each with its own terrace – the perfect place to drink the owner’s favourite beer, Amber. A few minutes later, she sent over a plate of home made fries as an evening appetiser. Nice touch!

As the sun softened and the beer softened us, my friend Kate and I contemplated our trip with huge grins. The flights had been booked back in December, and nearly three months in which to plan and anticipate had added to the excitement of setting off on our first big trip together. Finally, we were here, in the cradle of civilisation and coffee.

With one day to see Gonder, we were keen to get going the next day, thinking it would be a rush to fit everything in. Not so. It’s a lovely place, full of 17th Century palaces, but most of them are grouped together in one site, making it neat and easy to see everything. The complete lack of hassle immediately marked Ethiopia out as different from many other African countries we’ve been to. I’m not really one for a guided tour, although I’ve been on many of them. I don’t absorb historical facts well, so for me, the enjoyment of a place is much more aesthetic than factual. We entered by the ticket office, expecting to be followed round by guides touting for business. But after a polite enquiry and an equally polite refusal from us, that was it. No-one pursued us and no-one looked at all put out that we weren’t hiring a guide.

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It was a gorgeous complex of palaces to meander round, mostly crumbling. It was wonderful to imagine the grand court of Emperor Fasiladas meeting, greeting, scheming and partying. While we focused on photos of the ruins, Ethiopian tourists posed for photos. And while they were immaculately dressed, we were in traveller’s gear of baggy t-shirts and deeply unpretty walking trousers; not ideal when they asked us to pose for photos with them! There’s nothing like a stunningly beautiful Ethiopian woman to make you feel frumpy and dishevelled. It wasn’t the first time that I wished that I’d packed some make up and I came to regret deeply the absence of hair conditioner in my wash bag.

Quitting the palace complex we hailed our first tuk-tuk. There’s something about a tuk-tuk ride that makes me feel ‘yes, I’m away’. The noise, the dust, the drivers (and in some countries the crazy traffic) signal ‘other world’ in one gloriously loud and frantic snapshot.

The tuk-tuk driver wound up a short hill to Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of the area’s most richly decorated. Every square centimetre of the walls and ceiling inside are covered in religious murals – wide-eyed cherubs above and bible scenes on the walls. It was fascinating.

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But this was my favourite photo from the site.


All this history made us hungry for shade. And lunch. The tuk-tuk trundled uphill, struggling and bumping, to The Goha Hotel. It was recommended because of the view; perched on the edge of town, it’s truly panoramic. It was full of tourist groups and was deeply disappointing because of this. I think it was just too European for us on our first day of sightseeing. The view, though, was superb.

Suitably rested, we realised our beginners’ mistake; don’t let your tuk-tuk go when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Negotiate a price for the day instead. Still, the long hot walk back into town meant that we chatted on the way to a few people and had lots of nods and smiles.

Thirsty for our first real Ethiopian coffee, we eventually found a tuk-tuk and asked for the EEPCo Coffee House (praised in the guide book as the one with the best coffee in town). Much to our amusement (and that of our tuk-tuk driver) they had no coffee. So we went round the corner to Habesha Coffee Shop. I loved the fact that although we were the only women there, no-one gave us a second glance. I’ve been in plenty of African and Middle Eastern countries where we would have been objects of intense interest. Ethiopia was wonderfully refreshing in this respect.

The coffee was stunning – as strong as an espresso but beautifully rounded and deep without a hint of bitterness. And no grounds, unlike Turkish coffee. Ethiopian coffee made the traditional way is the best coffee I’ve ever drunk and probably ever will.

Next stop was the ceremonial baths, which in Fasiladas’ time was a summer house and party central. These days, it is the focus for Timkat (Epiphany, on 6 January), when hundreds of people are ‘re-baptised’ in a raucous, joyful celebration. In the quiet season, the pool is empty and a gentle wind breezes around the walled enclosure, leaves fluttering to the floor. It was a serene, lovely place.

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The highlight of the day wasn’t the sight-seeing, although everything we saw was superb. The highlight was getting on a little minibus, crammed in with local shoppers and workers. We couldn’t chat, as we had no Amharic, but there were many smiles and nods and laughter. I think my bleached, cropped hair was a good source of entertainment but mostly I think it was just that tourists tend not to hop on the bus.

It was a pretty fine start to the holiday but the best was yet to come. The Simien Mountains beckoned…

PR Teams take action! The future of Twitter

It’s not often I use this blog for work things (hell, it’s not often that I use it these days – that will be changing). However, an article flagged up by an industry colleague (@chrisdate) needs a PR response.

Twitter is partnering with Google to put tweets into search results in real time. So what? Well, it’s designed to get marketers to start focusing on Twitter as a way of driving search engine optimisation.

The Advertising Age article lists how brands can best respond to the initiative. As a PR expert, I think our industry needs to respond robustly.

IF you want to use Twitter to support your SEO, then absolutely follow Advertising Age’s advice. It makes sense. But note the emphasis on IF. If you go down this road, then just be aware that if  you decide to ‘leverage this new reach’ and start to ‘treat tweets like ads or landing pages’, then you lose the very thing that users of Twitter value – conversation. And if you lose that conversation, then you will lose followers.

It all gets back to thinking about your audience. If your influencers are engaged on Twitter (journalists, bloggers etc), then they are highly unlikely to retweet or reply to Twitter posts that are nothing more than keyword-optimised ads designed to push traffic and improve SEO. And consumer audiences? Yes, they do react to ads but that’s not Twitter’s strength – consumers love the interaction and conversation on Twitter, as it’s not replicated elsewhere.

The article advises: “In order to leverage this new reach, brands need to treat tweets like ads or landing pages. Have a meaningful call to action in your tweets or have a link to the brand site with more information. A simple message is not going to get your user to take action.”

Not every tweet does need to have a call to action. Reputation, influence and engagement are built by conversation, which includes retweeting good stuff from other brands, replying to other users, and commenting on relevant trends/news.

PR professionals, I think we need to work hard to ensure that we lead on Twitter and don’t lose the very things that make it so valuable.

And please note, I am not saying that SEO doesn’t matter. Of course it does. It’s just that not every single online activity should be about SEO. Reputation and engagement are just as important to building brands. Let’s not lose sight of that.

Am I alone on this? Have I misinterpreted the Advertising Age article? I don’t think I have but I’m sure my PR colleagues in the Twittersphere will let me know if I have. I really want to know, so tell me!

Kent, June 2014, Day 3: Sissinghurst

Of all the English Gardens in the National Trust’s portfolio, surely Sissinghurst is the best? Delicate, intricate and thoughtful, it’s a delight from start to finish.

The day I went, it was raining and I thought I was going to be out of luck but 20 minutes patience was rewarded with flowers showered with droplets of rain – perfect for up close photos.

When you go (as go you surely will at some point), I recommend starting with the vegetable garden. It’s great to see a traditional veg patch like this.

The local ice cream was superb too!

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By Carole Scott

Kent, June 2014, Day 2: Hole Park Gardens and Chapel Down Winery

Ah, summer. Long days, bees buzzing, flowers opening up for us to delight in their world of glorious colour. There is a good reason that millions of tourists flock to Kent in Southern England each year, from the UK and further beyond.

It is peppered with stunning gardens, all imaginatively created and beautifully maintained. I am the most dedicated of non-gardeners but even I feel a stirring of desire to be green-thumbed when I stroll by the abundant borders of an English Country Garden.

I know, I’m waxing lyrical and sound like a dotty old dear. But that’s the character that I became down in Kent last month. First on the agenda on my second day was Hole Park. Two minutes’ down the road, there was a summer fair, consisting of dozens of tents filled with delightful but expensive home lifestyle goodies. Did that and then after a gorgeous smoked salmon lunch, we meandered around the gorgeous gardens.

Hole1 Hole2 Hole3 Hole4 Hole6 Hole5

After a wee rest back at base, we headed off to Chapel Down, the Winery. Wow! Amazing wines. I was really blown away by the quality. The sparkling was stunning and I was taken aback at how delicious the Chardonnay was, given that it’s not mine wine of choice. I highly recommend a trip there – friendly and information people, pretty vines, fascinating processes and superb tastings.

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By Carole Scott

travel, pics & assorted thoughts from Carole Scott


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