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Discovering Ethiopia in Words, Images, and Adventures


Ethiopia, the eighth-largest country in Africa, has more mountains than any other country on the continent. They shelter ancient human communities and unusual vegetation and wildlife. Ethiopian mountains are not well known as a destination for adventure tourists. But Faiza Elmasry tells us one woman not only led an expedition there, she was also moved to write a book about an Ethopian mountain chain.

Majka Burhardt is a writer, adventurer, and certified rock-climbing guide. She has traveled the world by bicycle, canoe, and often on foot. In 2006, Burhardt left her home in Boulder, Colorado, to visit Africa for the first time. She was on a writing assignment in Ethiopia.

"I initially was set to write about coffee," she says. "While I was there, the climber in me started seeking out rocks that might be climbable."

Burhardt found a sandstone mountain chain in Ethiopia's northernmost province. A few months later, she returned to the area and launched a climbing expedition.

"I put together a group of three other women, mainly from the United States and one from Britain," she says. "They were all women that I climbed with in the past."

Burhardt has climbed peaks from the Arctic Ocean and Southern Argentina to the Himalayas and the sea cliffs in France. But nowhere, she says, was the experience as dynamic as her trip to Northern Ethiopia.

"We were going on routes that have never been climbed," she says. "So you are the first person who is putting your hand in that crack and then trying to get to the top of the formation. And then, you know, when you are in the mountains, you are removed from the rest of the world. mountains everywhere are not surrounded by people or towns. In Northern Ethiopia, people and towns are everywhere. You could look over your shoulder or behind and look down to a town. That experience made it very different than the climbing I've done in other regions."

Majka Burhardt says their time in mountain towns gave the group an unforgettable opportunity to interact with Ethopians and their culture.

"I think what's special about the Ethiopian people is their total kindness and their willingness to include you in their life and what's important to them," she says. "I've never seen that unbounded spirit in any other place that I've traveled before. Part of that is because it's a country that was never colonized. So you don't have any of that resistance to foreigners. Instead, there is that incredible generosity."

The expedition, she adds, was also a unique opportunity to explore the local cuisine.

"I ate Ethiopian food non-stop. It's amazing, these rich vegetables and sometimes meat, simmered and slow-cooked for so long a time, The flavors are really astonishing," she says. "Then you have 'injera,' which is a flat bread. There is also an interesting phenomenon in Ethiopia: Because of the Italian occupation in the late 1930s and early 1940s, you can get pasta everywhere."

The group's discoveries about the nation's landscape, people and food are chronicled in Burhardt's new book, Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Towards Possibility in the Horn of Africa. It is rich with tales of the people and their cliffs, and with lush color images by Gabe Rogel, an outdoors photographer who accompanied the Burhardt expedition.

"It's definitely unique. I had never seen anything quite like that as far as landscape goes," he says. "I do a lot of photography in the mountains and there are a lot more colors and somewhat more interesting landscape. But in Ethiopia, it was monotonous as far as the color goes, very brown and orange. But there were a lot of rocks that we were focused on with the climbing aspect of the trip. So that helped give the landscape some definition."

Along with the landscape, Rogel adds, local people were also unique and beautiful. He says that modern technology made it easy to communicate with Ethiopians without even speaking the language.

"I try to communicate a little bit with the person you're hoping to photograph before pointing the camera out," he says. "It can be ten, 20, 30 seconds of simple dialogue or some hand gestures. Now it's the digital age. It's fun to be able to show people a photo of themselves instantly rather than taking their picture and going away. Just showing them photos of themselves, just sitting there with them, connecting, seeing how they live, being in their houses, that was pretty special."

Author and climber Majka Burhardt is now on a book tour across the United States, talking about the Ethiopia she discovered.

"One of the things that I realized is that Ethiopia is not known as a place to go and adventure," she says. "But it has so much potential. Not only the climbing we were doing, but mountain biking, hiking and exploring lots of natural areas that have been very well preserved as a byproduct of the fact that the country has been more removed from the rest of the world for so many decades."

Majka Burhardt says her Ethopian experience has inspired her to explore more of Africa. This summer, she says, she will travel to Namibia to work on producing a documentary about the Himba tribe – and, of course, to climb more mountains!

Vertical Ethiopia: Climbing Towards Possibility in the Horn of Africa, by Majka Burkhardt, with photographs by Gabe Rogel, is published by Shama Press.

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