A journey free of preconceptions

3rd February 2017

By Benjamin Allen

When you’ve never been to Africa to the idea of going can conjure a melee of thoughts. When I first went to Ethiopia, I had no idea what to expect. Not only was it a trip to Africa that wasn’t a safari, but it was to a country not often mentioned in the UK. Besides the few old news reports my brain served up, I could hear hushed, reverential utterances about “The East African Rift Valley…” in the distinctive tones of David Attenborough. That was all I knew.

I arrived in Ethiopia a couple of days after The Mother and The Younger Brother. I got a connecting flight from Addis Ababa to Lalibela in a prop plane which flew low. The landscape was in turn undulating, sharp, river scarred and flat; reddish and grey, patched with trees and barren plateaus, the cliffs striped with coloured sediment; mottled light came through the sporadic cloud cover. The airport at Lalibela was a seemingly unmanned bungalow with no more than a handful of rooms. I hopped off the plane to be greeted by my kin and friends who had suggested the trip.

We drove up snaking roads without much traffic, on occasion passing children herding cattle. As the minivan climbed I was immersed in my family’s stories and photos of their last few days there. It looked as though they’d explored every nook of the monolithic churches, which appeared, in all their detail, both incredible and improbable. As we drove into Lalibela there they were, the cavernous holes in the ground protected by large white awnings. I could only see the tops of the churches roughly level with the ground, and was immediately jealous I hadn’t been able to come out sooner. Early the next morning we would leave for our trek.

We made our way to the edge of town to be met by our guide, Tefera, with three small donkeys and their owners, all of whom seemed to be smiling. Our larger bags were strapped to the donkeys for the day. Other than ordinary shorts and a t-shirt, I had a small rucksack, a hat and a decent pair of walking boots. The trek was to last for four days.

The first day took us up the ridge. For the following two days we would walk flat along the edge of The Rift, and on the final day enjoy a slow descent. Initially the climb was pretty steep, but it became clear the guides had deftly picked their route. We didn’t really stop other than for lunch, and by the end of the day we were much higher than I felt we deserved to be, given the effort we had put in.

The scenery was nothing short of awesome in the truest sense of the word. The jagged escarpments run from the edge of The Rift, smoothing and slowing to the distant horizon which marks the boundary between the land and a colossal sky stretching back up above. Seeing it from the plane it was one thing – but seeing it from the top of The Rift it felt both less believable and more intimate.

I’ve been lucky enough to see Ayres Rock in the day and the unpolluted sky above it at night, look over The Grand Canyon, walk up Half-Dome, watch the sun set in Botswana and gaze over the Alps. The landscape I now stood in was up there with the best of them. The photos of me against those horizons adorned the top of my Facebook page for quite some time.

At each lunchtime and overnight stop there was a cluster of maybe six huts. The three of us were in one, a Swiss couple on our trek in another, and the guides in a third. One of the huts was for the toilet and another for cooking, eating and drinking. They were tended to by local women. The huts were simple, small, round; mud walls with straw roofs in the local style. We’d stop at smaller clusters around lunch for honey, bread and coffee, and each night for enjera, beer and G&Ts.

The scenery kept impressing. There were constant cliff edges and ledges which I insisted on standing at the edge of and getting The Brother to take a picture. Occasionally we’d come across local farmers or groups of children. We’d take photos on our phones and they’d flock around giggling gleefully to see the resultant pictures.

I spent some time during the trip trying to fit what I was seeing around me with the image of Ethiopia in Western media. I couldn’t make it work and decided it was all too square-peg-round-hole. There was no part of anything I had read or watched which adequately portrayed what I was experiencing. We lucky few, I thought!

We would arrive at the overnight stops around 5ish, so we had plenty of time to relax. Tefera taught me and The Brother a game which involved each of us stacking five or six flat rocks on top of one another about 10 metres from the other. Each would then take three stones at a time to throw at the other’s pile in an attempt to knock it over. It became a grand series as we revisited the game again and again during lunch and night stops.

A little after lunch on the third day we passed by a tiny village which seemed to be more lively than the others we had passed. The guides stopped and chatted as some kids nearby were showing off their spear throwing prowess. Word was there was a wedding afoot and one of the guides ventured in to see if we’d be welcome to join.

We went into the village, through the huts and past an impressively large pergola under which the villagers were dancing and eating. The custom was to visit the happy couple, wish them well and leave a gift. We approached a queue of people leading up to what I could only describe as a straw igloo, where the newlyweds were receiving visitors. The Mother went in and passed them some cash, and said they looked terrified. Then The Brother and I knelt down to say hello – they did indeed look slightly terrified. We went back to under the pergola where, despite our insistence, they brought us another enjera. Around us the villagers danced and chatted. It felt like a very happy place.

As we left I asked our guide about the wedding traditions. He said the couple stay inside the straw igloo all day while everyone else feasts and dances until that night. Weddings have always struck me as home to the oddest of traditions no matter what culture you visit.

The final night’s stop was billed as a best-till-last setting. And it did not disappoint. The view has not been rivalled in all my travels. The expanse, the immediacy of it. The land stretching out into the horizon appeared to undulate gently until you realised the scale you were dealing with: the undulations were veritable hills. The earth was redder and the setting sun gave it a warm glow. On the final few hundred meters we walked through a troop of baboons who seemed to be busy with not very much. They flipped up their top lips to bare their teeth which I think is baboon for “naff off”.

The Brother and I played the game with the little stone towers some more amidst Tefera teaching us how to throw stones like an Ethiopian. They have this whipping underarm motion which sends the stone much further than seems plausible, spinning so fast it bristles the air with a satisfying hum. We had plenty of gin that night and we were shown the visitors book entry from when Brad Pitt had apparently stayed there! His bodyguard had written something about drinking the gin and then flying like an eagle.

The final day was a short walk down to the minivan, where we said goodbye to Tefera and the guides who had been such fantastic companions.

The feeling of ending a trip for which you had not known what to expect is an odd one. Usually your expectations are overwritten by what actually happens. But in this case I had so little clue as to what that might happen that was no point in even guessing. Those days in Ethiopia were filled with memories and photos that were previously alien to me – and were alien to anyone I described them to. They felt warm, unique and authentic.

Read more about Benjamin Allen’s experience in his post, The freshest of Ethiopian feasts. Coming soon

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