Camping with wolves and dancing with AK47s: the hidden treasures of Ethiopia
We were told only to expect a walk. A walk, and perhaps a church at the end of it. As a plan it sounded comfortable enough; as a plan it sounded much like a Sunday in Hampshire. So you can understand my concern when I saw the man holding a carrier bag full of old rope.
‘It’s for the difficult part,’ he said, tramping towards a rock face. The bag swung gaily back and forth in his hand, as if delighted just to be out. I peered inside and saw what looked like Medusa’s wig. ‘Just for safety.’
It was shortly after dawn in the Gheralta Mountains in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia. A dry, blunt environment comprised mostly of sandstone and shrubbery, millennia of erosion (once it was ocean, as witnessed by the fossilised sea urchins found under our lodge) has left a landscape somewhere between the Mojave Desert and the surface of Mars.
Even the acacias, which look like drunk umbrellas at the best of times, appeared exhausted. In every direction, baked plateaus loll, until they’re blocked by hulking walls of rock tall enough to obscure the midday sun. Beside them are the occasional breakaway solo acts: knobbly, marmalade-coloured spires surging to the heavens like ET’s gnarled fingers. As we trundled in single file on a vague, uphill path, it became apparent that we were heading directly towards one of these. Directly to the top of one of these.
The caravan began with just me, my girlfriend, Hattie, and our guide, Sefiw, but soon we were collecting additional characters, Dorothy and Toto-style, every few paces. Within 45 minutes we’d acquired a more local guide (the man with the ropes), a pair of boys half-heartedly selling sodas, a possible pilgrim, a group of six local men who’d been dozing under an olive tree, and the wordless, caprine priest of what we discovered to be arguably the most isolated place of worship in the world.
‘It’s up there,’ the rope man said, gesturing at what seemed to be the sun. I could see neither church nor path nor any reason to go further. The priest, who estimated he’d been up and down this route at least twice a day for 48 of his 63 years, scampered off ahead. The soda boys dropped out, and soon, when we met a 90-degree rock face, I saw why.
It was just a 10m stretch but vertical, and dotted with natural foot and hand slots created by at least a thousand years of worshippers resting their limbs in precisely the same places. We kicked our shoes and socks off, both out of respect and a desperate need for more grip, and opened the bag to remove a harness, carabiners and enough rope to sling around a flimsy branch above. The band of local men spaced themselves up the ascent, dangling to offer a hand.
‘OK. Don’t look down. Right hand there, left hand here. No, sorry, I mean left foot there,’ said the nearest one, as I crept up the wall. I had told nobody there that I hate heights and ledges – apart from Hattie, of course, who was supportively taking photographs of me in my harness to laugh at later.
‘Bravo!’ the men shouted every time I reached a new inch. All they wanted was a tip, I knew that, but they had to keep me alive to have any chance of getting one. The arrangement was fine by me.
The wall, it transpired, was an amuse-bouche. As an eagle flew well below us, I saw the route led now to a pathetically small stone bridge with sheer drops of 250m on either side. Beside it was an open-air tomb, complete with a penguin-huddle of barely-composed human bodies.
Tourists who didn’t quite make it?’ I asked. Priests who came up to die, came the response. Lovely.
Without a harness, we crossed the bridge daintily, before facing what was promised to be the final level: hugging a marble-smooth sandstone wall while edging along a 50cm-wide sill. Trembling a bit, sweating a lot, wondering what was so wrong with worshipping on the ground, I shuffled along. And there, carved out of the rock before us, so high at 2500m that even the vultures flew in its shadow, was the door to a little church. Abuna Yemata. The priest stood waiting. Welcome to Ethiopia, where everything's done the hard way.
‘So, what do you think is interesting about our country?’ Sefiw asked, craning around in the front seat of a people carrier and beaming, when he met us at the airport in Addis Ababa three days earlier. (His name rhymes with ‘bless you.’)
I looked down at our 14-day itinerary, which seemed to contain a greater variety of environment, landscape, people and activities in one country as you’d get travelling for a month across Europe.
‘Oh, everything,’ we replied in unison. Sefiw seemed pleased. He wanted to show us everything.
Ethiopia is the only African nation never to have been colonised, defeating the Italians twice, and it is now the continent’s fastest-growing economy. Between 2000 and 2011, it more than halved its poverty rate. It has the Great Rift Valley, one of the only stretches of our planet definitely visible from the moon (the Great Wall of China may also be great, but it’s also no wider than the A303).
It has its own calendar, which counts 13 months as a year. It has a wolf you’ll not find anywhere else. It has volcanoes and technicolour salt flats, and the Blue Nile, but doesn’t bang on about it. It isn’t at war any more, it isn’t in a famine, it isn’t dangerous, it has a young prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who almost everybody is excited about, and it’s disputed but just possible that if you were to look back far enough, all humanity originated here.
Its capital, Addis Ababa, is a curious little place. On the one hand it has little to offer in terms of sights or beauty; but on the other it has a rough, inexplicable appeal – like Paul Hollywood, or Scotch eggs. A few hours is enough, though, so like most visitors we returned to the airport the next morning to head north for the rock churches. On that first internal flight, an Orthodox priest tottered up the aisle giving individual benedictions to every single passenger apart from us. We were quite literally without a prayer.
There are broadly three types of rock churches in Ethiopia: monolithic (entirely hidden in the rock and often up high, like Abuna Yemata), semi-monolithic (partly in the rock, but discernible from the outside as a building), and rock-hewn (carved entirely from the rock like a sculpture). Tigray, from where King Ezana first declared Christianity his state religion in 330 AD, is abundant in the first two, with scores carved into the mountainsides. Some are as old as the 5th or 6th century, and built by hermits working on the reasoning that high meant closer to God, and that inaccessible meant avoiding the hassle on the ground. No heretic invaders would bother going to check if there’s a church where Abuna Yemata is found, I can tell you that for sure.
It is eerily silent inside them. In Abuna Yemata, which holds regular baptisms and a service every Sunday, we found the walls and ceilings drenched with frescoes depicting the nine saints and 12 apostles. Almost all the monolithic churches are decorated in this style, with a cartoon-like quality to the figures. A lack of humidity and weather means they’ve barely deteriorated in centuries, too. It took our breath away, though that may also have been the altitude.
We spent three days in Tigray, returning each evening to Korkor Lodge, a clutch of Italian-run, sustainably-built luxury cabins that stare directly at the mountains. We could have been happy there for weeks, but we had more churches to see, so set off for a 15-hour car journey to Lalibela.
Beginning in darkness and finishing in darkness, the drive was like any in sub-Saharan Africa: as fascinating as it was uncomfortable. It took us through camel markets, past a group of geladas (an endemic species of Old World monkey that looks like a baboon caught en route to a Lion King-themed party), through villages of near-medieval poverty where goats easily outnumbered people, and through green valleys where clouds met eye-level.
Lalibela is the breakout star of Ethiopia's nascent tourism industry. Its 11 rock-hewn churches – the reason for its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and all it needs – were part of Saint Lalibela’s divinely-led plan to build a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th centuries, and took an estimated 40,000 people 23 years to chisel from the sacred ‘mother rock’.
They are all connected by tunnels and corridors, and the most famous, The Church of Saint George, looks as if it was 3D printed. It was impossible to contemplate the freakishly precise, fiddly and barely-invented-yet mathematics that were required to design it. We took two days to see the complex in full. They’re entirely functioning churches, so you barely need to be lucky to see some kind of Orthodox service take place. Sefiw, in his hometown, knew the place by heart, and managed to time our visit to see the whole town come out for the Annual Feast of St Mary of Zion. Thousands of worshippers – all shrouded in furious white shawls – stood in, on and around the site at sunrise, as drum beats and chanting echoed all around the valley.
We were all churched out, which happens to the best of us, so headed south for the second week, flying to Addis and then driving for seven hours to the remote south-west of the country, stopping for lunch en route. It was traditional fare, and the kind of meal you could find an Ethiopian of any salary eating: a mix of often fiery vegetable, meat and lentil stews dolloped onto a large portion of injera. Made from teff, a grass native to Ethiopia and Eritrea and eaten almost nowhere else, injera is a spongy, sour bread that loses all its dignity after three seconds under the weight of a stew, so you’ll need more – this time served rolled-up like carpet underlay – to mop the whole lot up by hand.
‘You will see something totally different here,’ Sefiw promised us, and he was right, as usual. Crossing the Great Rift Valley, we reached The Bale Mountains National Park and found it didn’t look like anything I thought of as ‘African’ at all. It looks like Exmoor on steroids.
Prerupt, dull grey slopes rise up with clumps of heather soul patches attached. Lakes, tarns and grasslands tie the peaks together, as does the vast Sanetti Plateau, where the average altitude is over 4,000m. It is these highlands, together with the Simien Mountains in the north, that give Ethiopia the name, ‘the roof of Africa.’ Nowhere on the continent is there a larger afro-alpine region, and that means nowhere on the continent are the same animals found.
It is said that the Bale Mountains are home to more mammal species than any other region of its size on the planet. Most of these are rodents, including the giant mole rat – imagine Ronnie Corbett in a fur coat – but it’s also the best place to see the Ethiopian wolf, the rarest canid in the world, numbering only around 500. Spotting one is just a matter of time; resembling larger, well-groomed foxes, they parade around like the belle of the ball and roam for miles each day.
That night we settled fireside at the preposterously comfortable Bale Mobile Camp, where two men sat on the mountain overhead with automatic rifles, keeping watch ‘for anything’ as if we were the Obamas. We’d catch their eye when we got up in the night for the loo, so they’d wave. And every evening at dusk, a family of warthogs would gambol home on a path in front of us. They walk like pigs in a huff, in single file, and all lined up in descending size order.
The next morning, as we explored the region with a local ranger, Awol (ironically, he was always nearby), we were told about hyenas not far away, about the dense Harenna forest, where rare, black-maned Abyssinian lions dwell, and about how lots of people come here just to twitch, since you can tick off dozens of raptors in a short walk. He also pointed out a rock hyrax, which looks like a fat badger, and told us it is the species most closely related to an elephant – which is a bit like how Danny Dyer is technically related to Edward III.
Every once in a while we bumped into a mountain nyala, a huge, endemic antelope that seem to run in elegant slow motion, like Muybridge’s Horse. Whenever we got near a herd, they would freeze and look at us as if we’d walked into the wrong pub. I loved them. It’s little surprise that one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most successful exports is anthropomorphism: everything there has a character.
‘Are you ready to have a total change again?’ It was Sefiw, with his grin. He was enjoying this. We were travelling even further south for a final taste of Ethiopia, and it would be the most acquired yet. The Omo Valley feels like another country, another continent again. In a day, we went from -5C overnight in Bale to 35C in Omo. The ground went from dewy grass to dusty savannah. And the people, well… the people had definitely changed.
Divided by the languid slash of the crocodile-infested Omo River (one local man was eaten alive when we visited) on its way to the Kenyan border, this corner of Ethiopia is a patchwork of different indigenous tribes, cultures and languages. It is another Unesco World Heritage site, thanks to the discovery of human remains dating back nearly 2.5 million years, but it is also in peril: government land seizures, plus the building of dams further up the river, threaten the future of tribes who have lived there since long before Ethiopia was a state.
Passing termite mounds as high as totem poles, we bounced across the parched ground to Lale’s Camp – the only permanent tented camp in the valley, on the banks of the river and under a canopy of monkey-stuffed fig trees. It is run by Lale Biwa, of the local Karo people, and staffed by a range of tribespeople from the valley, as well as two Kenyan chefs. At night, the only sounds were a cacophony of animal chirrups, barks, yelps and snorts. I have no idea what was out there.
The intention of Lale’s Camp is to provide a mutually beneficial, sustainable alternative to the increasing number of tourists who come south, take photos, pay for trinkets and leave again without having engaged with the locals at all. It is a laudable sentiment, but we couldn't help thinking: who is actually the beneficiary of that decision? It’s a conflict any traveller to remote areas wrestles with.
Popping in to see the tribes in their villages over the next few days was nonetheless fascinating – if a little awkward when some of the expressions we were met with suggested the pleasure was all ours. We met the Hamar people, whose women coat their hair in ochre and butter, and the Karo, who jump bulls as an initiation to manhood. We met the Nyangatom, whose numbers almost trebled around the turn of the century thanks to the medical help of a few Swedish missionaries. And we camped with 30-odd Mursi, famous for their lip-plates, who ‘invited’ (forced) us to dance with them one evening.
How I and they laughed, as Hattie, turning puce, lurched in the middle of their circle like Theresa May. And how everyone laughed, when I had to improvise a one-on-one seduction routine with a Mursi lady, Habija, who’d taken a shine to me. Later, during a fellas-only number, my partner was a 6ft 5ins half-naked man using his AK-47 as a twirling baton. You don’t see that on Strictly.
At sunset the next evening, our last in Ethiopia, hundreds of body-painted men and boys from the neighbouring Karo village had gathered, arranged themselves in a semi-circle in age order, and begun jumping up and down. Women wearing homemade necklaces piled high on their chests jumped opposite. It was a traditional ceremony, and the movement created a beat over which simple, repetitive harmonies were sung all night. The result was pure joy, and went on for hours, the dust kicking up into the gloaming and returning as constellations.
Over two weeks, Sefiw turned out to be the kind of guide who is so good, so unflappable, so interesting and interested, that travelling the country without him would have been like seeing it with the light off. On the way down Abuna Yemata, giddy from the excitement and trying to ignore the octogenarian pilgrims happily climbing up without assistance or panic, I asked him why he hadn’t just told us what we were in for. Why did he say it was only a walk?
He smiled, with a mixture of triumph and shame.‘I didn’t want you to think about how hard it was and say no,’ he said. ‘I thought it was better to just go and see for yourself.’
It is, in hindsight, the way to approach Ethiopia. It is the way to approach travel. We were told to expect a walk; what we got was an adventure.