The gateway to the Simien Mountains, Gonder is only 95km from the park. The 16th century Ethiopian capital is home to a group of castles found in an enclosed park. The first castle was built during the reign of King Fasilides (1632 – 1667) and the remaining castles were built by his successors. Sometimes described as ‘Africa’s Camelot’ these castles have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
Also found in Gonder is the Debre Birhan Sellasie Church (which means Trinity Church of the mountain of light) poised on a hilltop on the outskirts of town. The church has a particularly well-preserved ceiling of frescoes.
Markets are a great way to get insight into the local way of life and give you a chance to socialize with the locals. The largest markets in Debark are a cattle market held on Wednesdays and a general market held on Saturdays. The market is located on the gravel road from town towards the park.
Welleqa (Felasha Village)
Situated 5km from Gonder along the Debark-Axum road is the Felasha Village. The village was established by Ethiopian Jews who were believed by many to have been descendants of the lost tribe. Although there are no longer any Ethiopian Jews remaining, you can buy local souvenirs here.
Kossoye viewpoint is about 38km from Gonder on the way to the Simien Mountains National park. At a height of about 2,300m, this beautiful spot provides magnificent views of the Simien Mountain range and as well as views of the lower ridges and valleys. Queen Elizabeth II once stopped here while traveling to Axum.
The church of Daresge Maryam
The church of Daresge Maryam, located 15km outside of the park boundary was consecrated in 1852. The 19th century in Ethiopia was a time where regions were ruled by warlords, some who claimed to be descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. After thirty years of warfare Prince Webe was on the verge of being crowned emperor of the capital (Gonder) during that period, known as “Zämäna Mäsafint” or the “age of the princes”. Unfortunately, he lost the final battle to a young warrior named Kasa. Although it was Webe who built this church, it was Kasa who was crowned there. The paintings that you see in the church today probably began at the time of his coronation.
Kasa took the name of Emperor Tewodros II and, after initial military successes, became more ruthless and cruel then ever before. He dominated the highlands of Northern Ethiopia. During his reign, there were no roads over the mountains, only small foot tracks. Eventually he moved his capital from Debre Tabor in the east to Magdala – the goal of the military expedition by British forces in 1868 and the scene of the famous battle involving the troops of Queen Victoria.
Massive hardwood double doors, each weighing half a ton, guard the interior of the church. Colorful paintings cover over 30m2 per wall. The church is also home to other treasures commissioned by Webe: golden crowns, processional crosses, swords, and cups embroidered with gold and silver threads and encrusted with medallions.
The church is found 15km southeast of the park boundary. You have to travel through the park to get there. For more information about visiting this church please visit email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gondar to Axum by Road
The drive from Gonder to Axum is one of the most scenic drives in Ethiopia. The trip takes around 8 hours in a good private vehicle. One of the highlights is the viewpoint at Lemalimo that travels on one of the steepest roads in the country. The spot provides breathtaking views of the Simien Mountain range, lower ridges and Tekeze valleys.
There is no direct bus from Gonder to Axum. However, there are buses from Gonder to Shire (also known as India Sellasie), which take approximately 10 – 11 hours. From there, minibuses for Axum leave throughout the day and take about 1.5 hours.
Buses leave from the Gonder bus station where you are advised to purchase your tickets the day before you plan to travel. To locate the specific ticket window, listen for people calling for Shire. Buses are scheduled to leave at 6am although they don’t always leave on time. You are advised to arrive around an hour before departure. Buses stop for a brief lunch break. If you want to be picked up from Debark ask your guide or broker to order a ticket on your behalf. There is also the possibility that the bus will have open seats when it passes through Debark. However, it is recommended to have someone help you to reserve a seat