4 mins

Ethiopia: northern highlands

Travel in Ethiopia has its challenges, but up in the northern highlands, an inspirational community project repays every step of the journey

Travel in Ethiopia is hard... (Harri J)

Through the fog of semi-concussion, I flipped myself over in the pile of litter, looked up at the Ethiopian night sky, and wondered where it had all gone wrong.

I was 650km north of Addis Ababa, lying sprawled in a 3m hole in the pavement that I’d somehow contrived not to see in the predawn gloom. It was a new low on an increasingly arduous journey from the deceptive comforts of the capital, and for the first time I was beginning to agree with the downbeat mantra I’d read in the guidebooks and heard from other travellers: “Travelling in Ethiopia is hard!”

Perhaps it was to be expected – after all, two decades of famine and regional warfare hadn’t done much to encourage high expectations. But back in Addis Ababa, it had been easy to wave away such negative comments. There I had sipped macchiatos, ogled display cases full of early hominid bones at the National Museum, and enjoyed one of the world’s finest cuisines in the evening. Even better, I’d found a man who offered to drive me up to the northern highlands, the land of soaring 3,000-4,000m plateaus I planned to explore en route to the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, the eighth wonder of the world.

But things had changed these past two days. I’d spent most of  the time watching Habtamu, the man who had offered me the lift, tinkering with the spluttering entrails of his Toyota Hi-Ace, only emerging from its innards to remark, “This is when we say in Ethiopia, ‘Shit happens’.”

Then there had been the infamous bouts of ‘faranji frenzy’ that see foreigners constantly harassed by hordes of children shouting ‘You! You! Faranji! You!’. And finally there was the fleapit of a hotel when I arrived in Dessie, a town I had come to speculate was short for ‘despair’, and that I had been rushing to escape when this pothole put in an unscheduled appearance.

Lying there, I’d concluded that Ethiopia would have to pull off a miracle if it was going to expunge the black mark now hanging over it on my imaginary map.

The audacity of hope

What I didn’t know then was that something miraculous had already happened, a miracle that had been seven years in the making.

As the rest of the world geared up for the 21st century (according to the Ethiopian calendar, it is currently only 2003), an Englishman called Mark Chapman was laying the foundations for Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives, shortened to Tesfa, which means ‘hope’ in Amharic. Tesfa works with the people living on the Meket Escarpment, a sheer-sided wedge of basalt highland between Dessie and Lalibela. Their idea is simple: local communities guide and host walkers through this landscape of shivering prairies and spectacular clifftop views, trekking by day and stopping each evening at a collection of specially-built tukuls (roundhouses), perched on the precipice.

A chain of these camps run along the plateau, and I planned to walk east from Yadukalay – the fourth in line – along the escarpment, and then down to Lalibela.

It seemed, in theory, a perfect quid pro quo, providing an impoverished region with vital income while giving visitors like me the chance to experience a cultural Lost World.

Nonetheless, the next morning, as Tesfa guide Zalalem led our group away from Yadukalay, I hadn’t entirely relinquished my scepticism about Ethiopia. So when a gang of boisterous youngsters came charging towards us waving sticks, I naturally assumed we were being ambushed. It turned out they were practising ganna, a highlands team game a little like hurling. One of them offered me his stick to have a go. After five swipes at thin air, I finally connected, sending the small leather ball dribbling along the floor. The kids – all smiles, no frenzy – erupted into sympathetic applause.

Brad who?

Over the course of a long day’s trek, I quickly recognised that here was a place as unaffected by the onrush of modernity as it was possible to imagine. The Meket remains the land of the eucalyptus crook and the ox-driven plough, of mud-and-wattle roundhouses set in sorghum fields. When Brad Pitt visited in 2004, no one recognised him; if he came here today, they still wouldn’t.

One of the great successes of Tesfa has been to introduce tourists to the Meket without upsetting this venerable status quo. The accommodation, while furnished with comfy beds and blankets, looked from the outside to be little different to the local homesteads. At lunch, everyone scooped fistfuls of injera and shiro – an Ethiopian staple – from the same goatskin tub. At dinner, having arrived at Boya camp, we ate not-so-Ethiopian spaghetti around a fire in the communal tukul with the cooks’ half-naked babies toddling around us.

“Be careful where you walk; it is a cliff, you know,”

Zalalem’s disembodied voice called after me as I trundled off to bed. “Also, there are hyenas – just something to bear in mind.”

The next morning I stood in the doorway of my tukul and watched the sun rise over Boya’s staggering location. Two metres beyond the threshold the ground fell away, plummeting half a kilometre before running west in a patchwork of mineral halftones – pink, blue and green – dotted with flickering breakfast fires, and sown with hills and mesa-like mountains.

The trek from Boya to Aynamba was more genteel, the route taking us north-east over sun-yellowed grasslands and jigsaws of cracked basalt. As most of the walk was to be spent away from the escarpment rim, it became a day most memorable for its encounters across the cultural divide.

We ducked into a family tukul to watch a mother attend to an impromptu coffee ceremony – beans roasted on an iron-plate, frankincense burned on an upside-down saucepan lid, mud-thick brew served to those gathered.

I kicked a deflated football about with an village-worth of children – me versus 100. And we visited a primary school where students with anxious faces took it in turns to perform an English recitation: “This is Kame’s House. It is small. It has one room…”

Fighting for change

Amidst the arcadia, it took some effort to remember that life on these steppes remains one defined by hardship. 2010 was no different – as we stopped for lunch at the new market centre of Waru Mikeil, one of Boya’s local guides, Musgab, whose wind-leathered face sat beneath a brilliant-blue turban, summed up the perennial problem of the subsistence farmer with affecting simplicity: “This year, not enough sky. Cloud is no. Hard life.”

During the Derg’s ‘socialist experiment’ of the 1980s, the Meket’s smallholdings were expropriated by the government and absorbed into dysfunctional cooperatives. When successive harvests failed in the mid-decade, Addis turned a blind eye, and the world watched in horror as northern Ethiopia suffered apocalypse. One million people are thought to have died.

The knowledge that we were actively contributing to avoiding a rerun brought its own dividend. Tesfa’s host communities each receive more than half of the proceeds – around 50,000 birr ($3,000) a month, no mean sum in a country where annual GDP per capita averages less than $400. Decisions affecting how money is allocated are taken democratically by K’ire, a committee system in which every household has a vote; most goes towards paying off land tax, offering micro-loans to smallholders and establishing a network of grain banks, steps that have helped release communities from the life-or-death cycle of knife-edge subsistence.

Walking to Lalibela

Later that afternoon, we sat on a wicker bench outside Aynamba drinking St George beers, and watched a faraway troop of gelada baboons swarming uphill from the griddle-pan of the lowlands. For most visitors, Tesfa provides an unforgettable experience of the Ethiopian highlands in the raw. For us, having run the gauntlet of culture shock to get here, it was Ethiopia’s redemption, plain and simple. But it had left me with a quandary to ponder. Lalibela was still two Tesfa-stages away: a steep descent off the escarpment followed by a gruelling kick across sun-scoured lowlands. My companion was taking the bus...

“Why don’t we walk?” challenged Zalalem. “Don’t worry,” he added, reading my frown. “You’ll make it. Like Haile Gebrselassie says, ‘Yichalal’ – anything’s possible. But we will have to leave while it’s still dark.”

By around 8am we’d already been on the move for three hours, scampering a vertical mile down sheer grey lava flows before starting the quick-march west over a series of bread-loaf hills – known locally as abta gorbtas, or ‘up-and-downs’. Throughout the morning the sun had crawled upwards along with the temperature.

The trail continued onto the alluvial flats of the Tekezé River – no more than a few braided rivulets, crossable in a single stride – then climbed through terraces of bright-green tef. By mid-morning we’d stumbled into the small town, and final Tesfa site, of Geneta Mariam, named after the rock-hewn church that sits on its outskirts, a lichen-stained oblong encircled by irregular square pillars supporting a gable-roof embellished with slender crosses, and cradled by the hillside from which it was born.

In the 12 and 13th centuries AD that constituted the heyday of the Zagwe Dynasty, dozens of these churches were carved into the bedrock of the Ethiopian highlands. Most famous, of course, are the 11 in Lalibela. Like the growing number  of Western visitors now making the pilgrimage, I was destined to spend the coming days in thrall to this 800-year-old ‘New Jerusalem’.

Ethiopia’s marquee attraction is magnificently preserved, with its faded frescoes, intricate masonry, custodian priests holding tasselled parasols and groups of young deacons intoning prayers in the sacred language of Ge’ez. In the lead-up to Christian festivals, Ethiopians descend in their tens of thousands on this spiritual heartland, some walking hundreds of miles in the process. Put in that context, our jaunt was a cakewalk. At least, that’s what I told myself, as I sweated through the remaining hours of the journey.

Finally, we plodded over a last ridge to see Lalibela, a constellation of tin-roofs lit up in the sun, the roads thronged with men and grain-laden donkeys. I didn’t notice Zalalem make the surreptitious phone call, nor did I pay much attention when, five minutes later, a minibus pulled up beside us, motor purring. Then Habtamu hopped out and enveloped me in a bear-hug. “You made it!” he cried. “Welcome to Lalibela.”

Travelling in Ethiopia was hard. But in the right place and in the right way, the rewards were definitely worth it.

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