Trekking in the highlands of Ethiopia
9th November 2016
I first went to Lalibela in Ethiopia in 2008. Back then I thought that it would be a one-off visit to a town that for so long had piqued my curiosity but had seemed too remote to experience. Now I’m sitting down to write about my third trip there, which took place just a couple of weeks ago in the midst of Ethiopia’s declared State of Emergency.
In 2008, my wife and I spent a couple of nights in Addis Ababa and then flew north to Lalibela. This town is, quite simply, a monument to human endeavour and faith. How anyone comes up with the idea of carving churches out of rocks and then musters the human resources to make this happen is incredible. And not now, but in the 12th century; and not just one church, but 11!
I think of the stone churches of Lalibela in the same way that others think of the pyramids: as feats of human effort and engineering. The churches though, unlike the pyramids, are still being used for the purpose for which they were originally created.
A year ago I was back in Ethiopia, this time on my own, and with the opportunity to climb one of Ethiopia’s highest mountains, Abune Yosef. I again flew into Addis and then took the short internal flight north to Lalibela. I met up with my guide, and we set off on our hike from a place not that far from the town.
The hike proved to be one of the most exhilarating and punishing experiences of my life. As a middle-aged man, I like to think I’m reasonably fit, yet for most of the climb up the mountain I found my place at the back of the group. The tough climb was broken by our good fortune at seeing an Ethiopian wolf, spotted by our sharp-eyed guide who knew where to look.
At the mountain’s summit of 4,260m I looked down from the top of the mountain, encircled by amazing views and aware of just how differently sound travels at that height. It’s almost too high for birds up there, and it appears as though very little is growing.
My third visit to Ethiopia last month gave me cause to reflect on these earlier experiences. On this trip I returned again to Lalibela with my wife. The weather was as good as it has always been: dry, clear and sunny. We went back to the churches, as I never tire of visiting them. Then we spent two nights staying at Hudad Lodge high above Lalibela with breath-taking views over the Abune Yosef Escarpment.
‘Hudad’ is a word which roughly translates as ‘farmland given to the church.’ I was told that the land had once been owned by King Lalibela; many of the locals still refer to the land as belonging to the town as a whole. But development is rife in Ethiopia and here in the hills above Lalibela one entrepreneur has managed to open a lodge even on this historical site. There is also a school nearby.
From the lodge we walked up the escarpment and stumbled across a local market, known as ‘Hamusit Gebeya’ (meaning ‘Thursday market’). It is these encounters with local people and every-day events that have made my trips to Ethiopia so special. Just as the churches further down the hillside were indeed the people’s living heritage, so too was the market a testimony to life as it has always been lived here.
It goes without saying that the current state of emergency in Ethiopia has hit Lalibela’s tourist economy. Tour groups were conspicuous by their absence, and many of the town’s hotels and restaurants appeared quiet. But we felt as safe here as we have always been, and our experience of meeting both locals and other tourists doing what we were doing was as uplifting as ever.
We’d like to thank Andrew Fogarty for sharing his experiences of travelling in the Ethiopian Highlands with us.
By Andrew Fogarty, UK