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A personal pilgrimage to Ethiopia’s holiest sites

  • Written by  Redzi Bernard
  • Published in Explorers
A personal pilgrimage to Ethiopia’s holiest sites
17 Jan
Redzi Bernard recreates a journey her mother made fifty years earlier, travelling across mountains to reach the wondrous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia, and discovering a route lost to modern tourism

Ethiopia map

• Distance travelled: 170km
• Time taken: 5 days
• Transportation: Walking/Mule
• Starting point: Weldiya
• End point: Lalibela
• Team size: 1 trekker, 3 guides, 3 porters
• Essential item: Water filtration bottle. We filled up from streams trickling off the mountain as we walked.
• Surprising moment: Being chased across a plateau by a ferocious dog whose owners were suspicious of outsiders.

Rock! Watch out!’ I scream, as a boulder the size of a human head hurtles down the mountainside towards me. Gathering momentum and changing direction unpredictably as it bounces off shrubs and other rocks, there is a terrifying moment when it whistles perilously past the ear of Misgan, my guide, followed by a wave of relief that nobody is hurt. Misgan looks up. ‘Baboons,’ he says. ‘We need to move quickly, before they dislodge any more.’ We race on.

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Rewind a few days and being attacked by baboons is not the foremost of concerns about the trek I am about to undertake. I have been told it will be tough, and am expecting fatigue, blisters and the effects of heat, cold and altitude. But not primates throwing rocks.

I am in the vibrant market town of Weldiya, preparing to climb high into the North Wollo mountains in a bid to reach Ethiopia’s famed holy city of Lalibela. Over the next five days I will cover 170km, crossing mountains at 3,800m and lowlands at 1,800m. For centuries, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians have made this and similar journeys in pilgrimage to the breathtaking complex of 11 churches hewn out of solid rock in the 12th century. But it is not a route that outsiders typically take. At least not any longer.

In 1968, my mother, a young British graduate volunteering in Addis Ababa, heard about the wonder of Lalibela and set out to see it. The only way to get there was to take a bus to Weldiya and ask in the market for muleteers prepared to take her across the mountains. Her route was a dust track, a mere mule-width in places. For days she forded rivers and navigated stony paths across towering cliff faces. She fell firmly in love with Ethiopia, and stayed for more than a decade.

In fifty years of progress, roads have been built and the old route lost. But my guides have devised a path for us across the mountains that will shadow my mother’s journey as closely as possible.

A small village with traditional Ticul huts on a plateau near the mountains around LalibelaA small village with traditional Ticul huts on a plateau near the mountains around Lalibela

Setting off, the mountain ridge we are to cross looms ahead of us in silhouette. On this side of the mountain, the water trickles freely down through streams, and it feels like a land of plenty. All over the slopes, the world’s smallest grain, teff, blows silkily in the breeze. Rich in iron and a fantastic source of protein, teff is the main ingredient in injera, the spongy-sour flatbread eaten with most Ethiopian meals.

We climb a thousand metres in the hot sun the first day, taking small, slow steps and reminding ourselves that the goal is to get there, not to get there quickly. ‘Slowly, slowly,’ Misgan tells me whenever I forget myself and rush ahead. ‘Every egg becomes a chicken’. That night, camp is made in the grounds of a school, staring up at the Southern Cross and the bright smear of the Milky Way in the perfect darkness.

In a small settlement the next day, I enjoy an accidental game of What’s the Time Mr Wolf with 40 or so children leaving school. It is common for parents to warn children that foreigners will steal them in the night if they misbehave, and they are understandably terrified. They creep cautiously along the path behind me, freezing stock still every time I whirl around to smile at them, a few unable to contain their screams. These turn to giggles once they see the game and some of the braver ones step forward to chat. The reason for their fear becomes even more evident when I’m told by Yeshi, an elderly lady I meet further along the road, that she has never in all her life seen a foreigner in the area.

Mules used to be an essential part of travelling to LalibelaMules used to be an essential part of travelling to Lalibela

We walk on, snaking switchbacks in the road as it climbs. Around 3,700 metres, where gwassa grass and giant lubelias sit on moorland edged by vertical cliff drops of several hundred feet, we come across gelada baboons, perhaps 40 of them, red patches like hearts on their chests, their long golden brown fur blowing in the wind. They bare their sharp teeth menacingly as we approach, but despite their appearance they are wary of us and keep their distance.

Soon we see pockets of illegal cultivation cutting into the wilderness. 64 per cent of Ethiopia’s growing population is under 25 and competition for resources among young people is fierce. A flight to the cities has not halted the temptation to plough grazing land higher up the mountainside as young people get married and start families. The resulting destruction of the natural vegetation, loss in top soil nutrients and ability to retain water causes environmental degradation and habitat loss. The government has programmes in place to encourage responsible land use. Later I speak to Agar Alabachew, who grows barley on a hillside terrace, with incentives from Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme. It aims to tackle rural food insecurity, in part through environmental preservation. ‘You create terraces to prevent erosion and plant eucalyptus to help the soil and make the land green,’ she tells me, ‘and in return you get oil and seeds.’ But not everybody has land to take advantage of such schemes in the first place.

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Agricultural land use in Ethiopia is tightly controlled to help preserve the environmentAgricultural land use in Ethiopia is tightly controlled to help preserve the environment

The next morning we decide on a slight detour in search of the endangered Ethiopian wolf. We come into Afro-Alpine territory, carpeted with bees feeding on the nectar of millions of tiny purple and yellow flowers, rodents jumping in and out of holes in the ground, and kites and buzzards circling overhead. No wolves, though shepherds tell us some were spotted yesterday.

After a few hours we come to a breathtaking escarpment edge. Looking out across the mountains we spot Abuna Yosef in the distance, the highest peak in the region at 4,260m, just behind Lalibela. It looks impossibly far. Our slight detour has inadvertently taken us miles off course and the pressure is now on if we are to have any chance of reaching our community guest house before nightfall.

Our scramble involves squelching through meadows where mossy ground soaks up water like a sponge, giving us a spring in our step. We reach the Jitta gorge and climb down huge white boulders to cross the river – thankfully low enough at this time of year to hop across on stepping stones. It’s a gruelling climb back up the other side and I am grateful it is dry – in rainy season it would be impassable. We finish our day in the pitch dark, just torches and a sliver of moonlight to guide us.

The church of Saint George (Bet Giyorgis in Amharic) is in the shape of a crossThe church of Saint George (Bet Giyorgis in Amharic) is in the shape of a cross

The morning light reveals stunning views and I watch small, rabbit-like rock hyrax playing on the cliffs. A breakfast of wild honey and freshly baked bread is rejuvenating and we are ready to start our descent. The territory is much drier now and pebbles on the mountainside slide away underfoot, so that we have to adopt a jaunty little tap dance to get down without falling. It is here that baboons send a boulder flying towards us, making our escape all the more nerve-wracking.

We approach the Takkaze River, which means ‘slow’ in Amharic, the official language of the country. It is low – sometimes no more than a tiny trickle – but at points it looks like it is barely moving. Misgan points to an abandoned cobbled road and says ‘This is where we join your mother’s route.’ It is exciting to be walking in the exact spot she would have all those years ago. We cross the river barefoot – the gentle water a balm for our aching feet.

Evening brings us to the charming village of Geneta Mariam, site of an astonishing rock-hewn church dating to the 13th century, with beautifully preserved frescoes. A tiny, elderly nun, her fingers and toes curled with arthritis, lives an ascetic life in a minuscule hut by the side of the church. She came here 70 years ago and has only left for a few pilgrimages, relying on villagers to bring her food and water.

Ethiopian Christians still use the ancient churches to this dayEthiopian Christians still use the ancient churches to this day

In Geneta Mariam we pick up a mule. It is finally time for me ride into Lalibela just as my mother did half a century before. He is dark and glossy and decorated with tiny bells that tinkle as we move. Our destination is the Seven Olives Hotel, the only hotel in Lalibela in 1968 and the place my mother stayed. We begin a steep ascent through the protected forest of Nakutaleb cave church. In Ethiopia, the land around churches are sacred spaces, viewed as symbols of heaven on Earth. It is forbidden to cut down trees or destroy the habitat of the creatures in these oases of nature. Here at Nakutaleb, the site of a healing spring, we delight in the bird-life and abundance of monkeys dancing through the trees. Going back at dusk a few days later, a leopard appears that, according to the priest, regularly visits the church to drink its holy water.

At last, in the distance, we spot Lalibela. By now I am on a busy road and the mule is occasionally being spooked by the speedy tuk tuks and noisy construction vehicles feeding the many building sites we pass – all evidence of Lalibela’s expansion. Suddenly we round a corner, and it is there; the Seven Olives Hotel. We celebrate on the veranda with injera, spicy fried lamb and cold beers.

The churches of Lalibela are on the UNESCO World Heritage listThe churches of Lalibela are on the UNESCO World Heritage list

Sunday morning, I rise before dawn. I am going to the early morning service in the magnificent rock-hewn churches, built after King Lalibela had a vision compelling him to establish a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. According to legend, he chose this place as a holy site, and began chiselling down into the rock himself, with only angels to help him. The churches are architecturally astounding – high ceilings, huge arches, windows carved to capture the sunrise in the sign of a cross.

The spectacle of seeing these 800-year old monolithic churches still in use as places of worship moves the soul. All across the complex is a sea of white against the pink rock as Ethiopian Orthodox Christians wrapped in robes and shawls pray with palms upturned, joining the priests in songs and incantations. Drumbeats reverberate hypnotically around the site and frankincense fills the air. The sense of devotion is enveloping.

In the years since my mother came here, Lalibela has acquired roads and an airport, opening it up to tourists flying in and out on a circuit of Ethiopia’s many historic attractions. But in the process, the impetus for visitors to soak in the surrounding landscape, once a prerequisite of enjoying Lalibela, has been lost. As I have learned, the pleasure of slow travel makes the reward of this spiritual marvel all the greater. There remains exciting unspoilt territory to explore.

• Redzi Bernard is the winner of the 2019 Journey of a Lifetime Award, an annual grant given by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in partnership with BBC Radio 4. To hear the programmes she recorded on her journey through Ethiopia, visit BBC Sounds and search ‘Mountains, Mules and My Mum’ and ‘Listening to Lalibela’. She was helped in her travel adventure by Tesfa Tours: www.tesfatours.com

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