The first time I hear someone speaking about the unique character of Lalibela's churches is in 1994, in conversation with a Spanish diplomat who had been appointed to Ethiopia. From that moment on, my desire to travel to that country has always been present. But, it has been only three years ago, once I had information on the Tigray's rock-hewn churches, hidden in remote and inaccessible locations and their frescoes, when the desire to reach them turns into a real need.
Quite frequently I get asked the same question: why do I travel on my own and alone. I travel by myself because I enjoy the fact of creating the journey, bringing shape and content to it, and in order to achieve that, I am in need of freedom. I travel alone when I cannot share the journey with the person who happens to agree with my sense of the journey and things in life. On this occasion, as a result of events in the course of life, once I had all arranged, I happen to share the journey with another person with whom I had professional contact some years ago.
This English version (see my Ethiopia's travelogue in Spanish, also published in this website) was revised by Kathe Amann-Weitzer on April 2008. Further improvements were added by Ricardo García López on October 2009.
The afternoon flight, with Iberia, Madrid to Frankfurt, is pleasant.
At night, after an extremely slow check-in process, we embarked for Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines. Immediately after getting on the plane, one is shocked by a weird smell, a dense one indicating an overcrowded atmosphere that is no so usual within aeroplanes. As the rest, the flight runs smoothly.
The total price of the international flights, per person, return trip, from Madrid to Frankfurt, with Iberia, and then from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, with Ethiopian Airlines, amounts 775 euros. I bought these tickets at Airmat, representative of Ethiopian Airlines in Spain, with the head office in Madrid (69, Diego de León Street, 4th floor - C; Tel. 34 + 91 4022718). There is also the possibility of buying the international flights from the website Ethiopian Airlines.
If the international flights are bought from Ethiopian Airlines, this company offers a special price in domestic flights. For that reason, I choose Ethiopian Airlines, although its rates are a bit higher than the ones of the other companies, due to the fact that we will be needing five domestic flights. The price of these domestic flights, per person, is up to 210 euros and I also bought them in Airmat. The itineraries, schedules and prices of the domestic flights can be given by Airmat office. Tickets for domestic flights can also be booked at Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Abeba (contact Person is Nega Weldy.
Furthermore, there is no need to pay the tickets in advance and it is possible to collect them at your arrival to the country.
We arrived at Addis Ababa at 9AM, with two hours delay. We applied for our visas at the airport and changed money. The rate is, approximately, 1 euro = 10 birr.
In the airport, wait for us Wondosen Meshesha, the owner of the agency from whom we have hired the 4x4 vehicle to travel eleven days towards the South, together with the driver, named Kalem. We have brought some T-shirts and several varieties of turrón (nougat) for them, as it will be soon Christmas. We have also brought Kalem a bag with items for toiletry.
The agreement with Wondosen Meshesha, to complete the program across the South, conceived by me, comprises only the car and a driver, who manages to show an intermediate level of English. We do not have hotel reservations. The price of the car, model 1997-1998, is of 150 dollars per day, with air conditioning (120 dollars without air conditioning) and includes fuel, insurance, items for the camps (tents, mattresses and kitchen items) and taxes. It does not include provision of sleeping bags, but since I tend to feel cold in the camps at night and I did not bring one, it is my travel mate who lends me one, since she is not so sensible to low temperatures by night. Air conditioning within the car is really useful, given that it is not advisable to open windows because of the dust outside, even though during the month of December temperature is around 25 ºC. My travel mate is wearing face masks that happen to be extremely practical, due to the existing dust. As a matter of fact, the period during which we travelled to Ethiopia is the most suitable for the whole of the country. As for mosquito nets in the southern Area, we will not need them in the tents when we will be camping, whereas hotels have them in the rooms.
I chose Wondo, in spite of being a bit more expensive than other agencies, following the recommendation given by the photographer Jordi Llorens in the Viatgeaddictes Ethiopia's guide (in Spanish), a very insisting one, and, besides, he recommended him to me personally. He was right, everything is perfect.
After formal procedures in the airport, we immediately undertook the journey on our way to the South. When leaving Addis, we bought some bread, rice, pasta and tomatoes. We had brought food cans directly from Madrid, which is not necessary, as they can be easily found within the country. However, I recommend buying some of these when leaving Addis, because in the camps of Mago National Park and of Murle there is nothing to buy. As for mineral water, in enormous quantities, we had have asked Wondo to buy for us.
The first stop is to visit Adadi Maryam, a rock-hewn church from the XII century, which does not turn out to be very interesting. The second stop is to see Tiya stelae, which are of interest, but limited to people who have a deep knowledge in them or extremely interested.
Our purpose was to spend the night at Dila, but it became late, due to the delay of the flight from Frankfurt to Addis, and we decide instead to spend the night in Awasa, near the lake. After a walk around the lake, we go to a restaurant in town, where the dinner is wonderful: a memorable fish soup together with an excellent fish as main course.
We leave at dawn, taking direction Dila to see Tutu Fella and Tutiti stelae. We went to the Tourism Office, where we buy tickets and are escorted, by a "compulsorily" guide from this office. The two stelae fields, in phallus forms, turn out to be very interesting. The landscape is charming, encircled by coffee plantations. The children are lovely and people very kind, tourism hardly arrives here. It is a very sweet morning.
We continue for five hours the route on our way to the south to go to Dublock and see the wells of the Borena Ethnic.
It is at 6 or 7AM when men water hundreds of goats and sheeps, handing each other the buckets in which they extract water from the wells and pour it in a circular water trough, while they sing to encourage one another in the effort. This is meant to be spectacular, but not at the time we were present there: 3PM in the month of December, when the weather is not particularly dry. We agree on a misunderstanding when they suggest they might put on scene a sort of representation of how it should be, but it is not worthwhile, since the place and technique employed is well apparent without any sort of representation. There are about eight wells around and we see one more, no representation this time.
We come back to Yabelo, one hour north of Dublock, where we spend the night in Yabelo Motel, which happens to be quite acceptable, at a price of 10 euros. The village of Yabelo, in itself, does not hold any interest for us.
We get up at dawn. We leave the asphalted road at Yabelo, and we will not see the asphalt again until the end of the eleventh day of our journey to the South. We drive to the east for six hours to go to Key Afar market, which takes place on Thursdays, and is one of the most terrific markets of the South.
When we access the village at around 1PM, we see a mass exodus of people, mainly of the Banna and Tsemay Ethnics, who leave the market, when it is supposed to be the busiest hour. We find out that the police have just dismantled it and are forwarding people to their villages, because, the previous night, in Dimeka, one hour from here, eight members of the same family deceased because of meningitis. They advise us not to get out of the car, but we do, because we are vaccinated.
After walking around for a while among locals (their dresses and garments are absolutely wonderful), we observe how they leave from Key Afar to their villages, some walking and others in trucks. We then continue our route for one hour and a half to the east, to reach Jinka.
We lodge in Jinka Resort Hotel, a nice place, with a large garden full of calm, at a price of 23 euros.
We are not completely certain about how many people died of meningitis, because the information is very confusing, but in the following days, in the dispensary of Turmi, we see that the whole population is vaccinated in a very appropriate way from the sanitarian point of view and in great order.
We get up very early. We leave Jinka and drive for 48 km to the west, to reach the heart of Mago National Park, where the Registration Office and the camp are to be found.
Today, all day long, an armed scout from the park escorts us as an obligation. The tracks are fine and dry, and this makes it easy to drive. It has to be said that our car is very good and Kalem, our driver, is an excellent one.
We have the intention of visiting the village of Omo Mursi to see the Mursi Ethnic, but the scout tells us that as it is the harvest period, the village is completely deserted at present. As an alternative, we tell him to take us to a village where the tourists do not go frequently. He decides that we will go 45 km to the north of the park, to the village of Hanna Mursi, to visit the Bodi Ethnic, a group comprising, at the present time, some five thousand people. We love the village, its tiny market and mainly the marvellous Bodi people, of an extreme beauty. It is a lovely experience.
On the road to Hanna Mursi we meet a Czech couple, who had come from the Mursi village of Haila Woha and they told us that this place was lacking in interest. We are very thankful for this information, although it is not in our plans to go there.
In the afternoon, on our way back to the camp, we stop in the Mursi village of Bella. The village is charming. Some women are crushing the millet and taking care of the children. I enjoy going alone for a walk around the village, as most people concentrate in crowds at the main point of access to the village, for the photos session, at a rate of two birrs per portrayed person, depending on how many times the person appears in a same picture.
We head to the camp. It begins to darken when we arrive at the place. Three tents are already installed. Kalem mounts ours. The surroundings of the camp are full of monkeys running through the park or up on the trees. We did have a wash in the river, in very cold water. My travel mate and Kalem cook some rice with tuna, which is good. We go to bed. From the time we left Madrid, I do not manage to sleep. It will not be until the night after, in Murle Camp, that I will get some sleep. In addition to that, I catch a terrible cold, which will not leave me until my return to Madrid, some weeks later, even though for up to three times it appeared to have diminished, only to come back with more force.
Early in the morning, we undertake a tour of Mago National Park in the 4x4 vehicle with the scout. There is not a lot of wildlife. The park in itself is not very interesting, if it were not for the visit to the villages of the Bodi and Mursi Ethnics.
We have breakfast and then drive for two hours until we leave Mago National Park. Our destination today is Murle Camp, in the bank of the Omo River. On the road, already outside of Mago National Park, we stop in a village of the Karo Ethnic, which is totally deserted. During the period of the harvest, people abandon the villages and move all, as in this case, or almost all, to the fields that are at a long distance from the villages. The village is phantasmagorical. Then, we stop in Duse, another village of the Karo Ethnic, similar to the previous one, though with some inhabitants present.
We arrive in the Murle Camp at midday. We are the only ones spending the night here. There are also some bungalows for hunters and groups, that come all organized from Addis, but today there is nobody and the bungalows cannot be used and the electricity does not work either. Everything belongs to a Greek man.
We take a shower in lukewarm natural water, what makes it a pleasant experience. A boy of the Karo Ethnic, 15 years old, Muda, who is in the elementary school in Turmi and has come to spend some days with his brother, worker in the camp, becomes our shade during the two following days. He catches two fishes from the Omo River for our dinner of that day.
In the afternoon, Muda takes us to his village, Kolcho, located spectacularly at a very high point, with the Omo River at its feet. Due to the harvest period, only some children together with some old or sick women are to be found in this village of the Karo Ethnic. Among them, we meet the first wife of Muda's father and greet her. We also meet the teacher of the village, a native of Arba Mich, who can speak a bit of English. He shows us the two school classrooms. Even in this small village, the possibility of attending school for the first cycle of primary education exists. The teacher makes a request to us of teaching items for the children, as well as of photographic camera for him. With certain discomfort, we do inquire Muda if Government supplies this kind of items for the Schools and he answers yes.
We come back to the camp. Again, my travel mate and Kalem prepare pasta with sauce and Muda's fish, what happens to be a bit tasteless, maybe because it was not properly cooked. The silence and the darkness of the night are startling. All the stars in the Universe seem to have been given appointment in the sky of Murle and all can be seen, from very close, as if they were a part of you.
We abandon Murle Camp and drive then to the village of Kangate to visit the Bumi or Kangatan Ethnic. We parked our 4x4 vehicle at a large fenced esplanade up the hill and descend down to the river. The feeling of being far apart, in an unknown and unique territory is extraordinary. It is an image one would always want to keep alive in his soul.
From the other side of the river the brass boat arrives filled with sheep that are transported to the bank where we are for graze purposes. Once the sheep are out of the boat, we get on it and cross the Omo River. Immediately after, we walk up a very sheer hillside before we find ourselves in the village of Kangate.
From up here, the very same feeling of uniqueness, of being experiencing the living in a very remote time, of coming back many years, lingers. This is in my view the most impressive image of the South. We visit the village with the teacher, who speaks English. The architecture is beautiful.
Perhaps we are witnessing here the end of the existence of a very old world. All these Ethnic groups, all of which are very small, may - in ten years time - have changed forever their way of life and their homes, or perhaps in even less time, five years, as an old American couple, who we meet in Mago National Park Camp, forecasts to us. Suddenly, the history has stopped. The beauty and elegance of these Ethnic groups are so extreme, that you could even say they are harmful in a way. Girls, just wearing very simple fur sheep skirts, look like true nymphs.
The village has water, but the pump to take it up from the river has little power. The Government, they tell us in Arba Minch late after, has to contribute with a supplement of food.
Soon after we leave Kangate, our driver runs over a goat and kills it. The shepherd requests 800 birr (80 euros) from us, when we had been told previously in the village that the price is of 100 birr per head. The teacher, who is travelling with us on his request to give him a lift to Oromate, tries to mediate, but the custom of the Omo Valley, he explains to us, is that if an accident like this will occur, the owner has his opportunity and he takes advantage of it to get maximum compensation. After one hour discussion that leaves nowhere, taking into account that the driver has made an offer of 100 birr on his salary of 400 birr and the non-availability of any insurance, we resolve to put together 200 birr, in addition to the 100 birr offered from the driver and the matter is closed. Furthermore, the owner made the demand that he should keep the goat.
At midday, we are in Oromate, a place that keeps exactly the same relative position with the Omo River as Kangate. We use a wonderfully nice boat, this time a wooden one, very long and narrow, on which we cross the Omo River to see Up Oromate or Rate and visit the Ethnic group of Gable or Dasanech.
The children cross the river swimming, beside the boat, and when arriving to the bank they help us get off the boat and then walk up the sheer hillside to the village. The black and wet bodies of the children, sunbathed by the today's burning sun, are images of infinite beauty. We go for a walk around the village. The small houses are composed of narrow brass pieces, a unique architecture to be found in the whole South.
We plan to sleep in Oromate, but when we see the place waiting for us, we decide rather to continue the journey and spend the night in Turmi. We are at Turmi Camp after driving 75 km. It is the first time in the journey that we meet about thirty foreign tourists. Until this point, we could hardly count any tourist that we crossed. We take this opportunity to have our clothes washed, since they are in very poor condition.
Muda, who came with us, takes us to visit his friend's family, a boy, who finishes this year the secondary school. The level of life of this family is good. They have several houses. When we speak of houses here, we refer to a circular space built in mud about 12 square meters. In one of them the bread is being made, in another the mother is cooking and another is a living room with some wooden benches, where we sit down. The father offers us water with honey. Then, we go for a walk around the village of Turmi, which is the heart of the Hamer Ethnic.
We have inyera for dinner in the Tourist Restaurant. The inyera, the national Ethiopian dish, is a kind of crêpe or sour cake of about 50 cm of diameter. Under special circumstances, or rather when one can afford it, which is our case, there is the possibility of sprinkling it with tiny bits of lamb or sheep meat, together with a sauce. It is eaten making use of the hands, by using a piece of bread. I do not fancy the inyera, since I find it very sour, but I love the meat and the sauce with bread, when there is any. We also drink the national beer, which is of very good quality.
In the morning we go to the school together with Muda and a boy of his age, Aoita, who does small jobs in Turmi Camp. They introduce us to the Principal of their school, who is in the court speaking with some students. He asks us for items we may have brought for the school. We tell him that we have already distributed the pens and candies my travel mate brought from Spain to children we found all around the South. To this, he replies that he does not see the point for us to appear there. In reality, we just want to show our appreciation for Muda and Aiota. We then leave. After that, we go with the two boys to the dispensary, where they are vaccinated against meningitis.
The market of Turmi hardly takes place. The police let people meet in the market, but only the ones from the village, due to the problem of the meningitis. The Monday market of Turmi, together with the Thursdays of Key Afar and the Tuesdays and Saturdays of Dimeka, has the reputation of being the most fascinating and colorful of the South, because all the Ethnics of the area meet there and exchange their products.
After having strolled through the market, around 1PM we leave to another Ethnic Hamer village to see, in the afternoon, the bull jumping. This ceremony takes place when a young man wants to get married and he has been accepted by the elected young woman. Then, the family of the young woman selects a group of bulls. Once placed one next to other, the pretender will jump four times on them, two in one way and two in the contrary way, without falling. If he falls in some of the jumps, it is considered to be a bad omen for the future of the couple, which justifies temporary rejection of the bridegroom by the family of his intended bride. He will then have to wait for one more year until he can go through the same test again.
Before this ceremony, adult people leave to the outskirts of the village, to a place where there are some trees, which protect them from the sun. Then, the marriageable young men or maz seats on the shade, indifferent, with a stick in the hand and they are incited by the marriageable young women to be hit by them, on the naked back, with their sticks, and with the wounds caused by these and the bloodstained back, demonstrate to their pretenders their courage and love for them. I feel a great shame after having been a witness of this.
Then, we return to the village for the ceremony of the bull jumping, but this does not take place, because the young man who has to pass the test cannot arrive at the village.
We begin to feel the very strong pressure of children and boys, who request money and other things from us. Aoita is an exception. We begin to feel uncomfortable.
We leave Turmi very early and drive for six hours to reach the village of Konso, where the Ethnic group known by this name lives. Konso, in itself, it does not have any interest. We go to the Tourism Office, from where we are escorted the whole afternoon by an old local guide who is in too much of a hurry.
I don't know if it is an obligation being accompanied by someone. The Lonely Planet Guide points out that it is necessary to go to the Tourism Office to register and to be accompanied by a guide. In case it was not an obligation, my advice is not to take a guide with you. If it is an obligation, I advice you to try and make it clear exactly what you want to visit and indicate that the visit should not be time limited.
Sixteen kilometers away from Konso, we see the Pinnacles of Gesergio, which are very impressive. We also visit the village of Machekie, 9 km from Gesergio. Both the village and the houses are walled with trunks of trees. The architecture is very interesting. The village has several moras, kind of large wooden barns in the centre of the squares of the village where the single young men sleep. We also visit the village of Burgo, which is not included in the guides, but impresses us when crossing. It is a marvel similar to the village of Machekie, but more authentic. I recommend visiting the two villages, and if possible, some more, because there are about fourteen of those around Konso.
In the afternoon we reach Arba Minch. They are making an asphalted road and a length is already finished, which helps us to complete it in two and a half hours. We sleep wonderfully two nights in Bekele Mola Hotel. The rooms are great and calm cabins on the edge of the Chamo Lake. The price is 53 euros. We have dinner in town, a memorable fish soup, and as main course, a good fish. I do not recommend that you have dinner at the hotel.
We leave early with the intention of doing the safary tour with our 4x4 vehicle throughh the Nechisar National Park, which is ten minutes from the hotel. We are accompanied by a "compulsory" armed scout. We spend five hours in the park, which is a marvel, located between the Lakes Chamo and Abaya. From the point of view of the wildlife, it is the most interesting we visit, with enough zebras and gazelles. We can come very close on foot to the zebras. But, if the wildlife is interesting, the landscape is not less, I would say, spectacular, with the different views and perspectives of the two lakes. I advise not to miss it.
In the afternoon, we take a boat and we go for a tour around Lake Chamo and we see more wildlife: crocodiles, hippopotami, pelicans, etc. This tour is beautiful and pleasant to undertake, if there is time. The price is 15 euros per person (we are in two).
Then, we have a beer with Kalem and the son of the boat's owner, a very intelligent young man. We chat about the political, linguistic and economic situation within the South.
We leave Arba Minch and we go to the small village of Dorze. We buy scarves in different colours from the little girls who are knitting them beside the road. I also buy from them a kind of wooden boat, where they put the wool ball.
We visit the village. The architecture is a marvel. It is the most beautiful in the South. The houses consist of very high enormous structures made in the form of beehives. The arched roofs are covered with a kind of banana straw to form a dome.
Then, we go for a walk around the market, which takes place on Mondays and Thursdays. It is the most beautiful market we have seen and we will see. It happens on a huge flat esplanade with a slight inclination, to be found on the left of the village. On both sides of the market, all along it, there are plenty of small establishments where people eat and drink. To the end, in the prairie, donkeys graze.
I recommend not missing the visit to the village and the market of Dorze and, if it is not market day, it is still essential to go to Dorze to see this extraordinary village. The village of Chencha, Kalem tells us, is not that interesting, apart from its market on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which might be a good alternative in case it is not a market day in Dorze.
Afterwards, we leave for Sodo, where we spend the night. The town does not have any point of interest. In the restaurant of the hotel we meet a French man, Michel, a professor from the Island of Reunion who is in his way towards the Bale Mountains National Park, which I believe is very interesting.
We leave Sodo. We stop first at the Lake Abiata-Shala National Park to see a colony of flamencos, which is quite interesting, and later on at the Lake Langano, which I must say is not much worthwhile.
We eat on the way, so as to farewell Kalem, who complimented us with some beautiful scarves in white tones. We reach Nazret, which is not worthwhile, where we said good-bye to Kalem and split from him, because it is here where our journey through the South finishes. We stay in Nazret, instead of following the way to Addis with Kalem, because Nazret is a better place to catch the first bus for Harar the day after.
Now that I have done the journey through the South, I am of the view that the area can be visited by focusing on the places of real interest, and with this purpose in mind the best thing to do is to rent a car for four days in Arba Minch immediately after arriving, even do it before arriving. This could mean an important saving exercise in both time and money. If it is money the most important thing to save, a twelve hours bus can be caught from Addis to Arba Minch. Furthermore, the landscape you can see on your way from Addis to the South, either to Arba Minch or Yabelo, is not very interesting and four days are needed to complete the round trip itinerary.
The Tourism Office of Arba Minch (telephone: 251 468 812171 and fax: 251 468 813661) can help in hiring a 4x4 vehicle, with a driver, with a medium level of English, for 80 euros per day, with gasoline included, but without air conditioning, both for the Safari in the Nechisar National Park and the visit to Dorze, as for the trip to Turmi and Omo River. The same, the Bekele Mola Hotel of Arba Minch (telephone: 251 468 810046 and mobile: 251 0916 826456 of Behailu, an employee of the hotel, who speaks English), can fix the hiring of a 4x4 vehicle under the same mentioned conditions, but the price is about 130 or 140 euros per day.
Therefore, I suggest the following six days alternative itinerary to the South, catching a flight, round trip, from Addis Ababa to Arba Minch, and hiring a 4x4 vehicle in the South:
Day 1 - Fly from Addis to Arba Minch. In the afternoon, if it is desired, do the boat trip through Lake Chamo. Spend the night in Arba Minch.
Day 2 - Very early, experience the Safari through the Nechisar National Park and then go to Dorze to see the village and its market (try to do it on Mondays or Thursdays, which are market days). It would be interesting to rent the 4x4 vehicle from this second day, both for completing the Safari through the Nechisar National Park (a 4x4 vehicle is required), as well as for the visit to Dorze and subsequent visits to Turmi and Omo the three following days.
Day 3 - Leave very early for Konso. Visit the villages of Konso Ethnic (especially Machekie and Burgo) and the Pinnacles of Gesergio. Continue to Turmi and spend the night there.
Day 4 - Visit the market of Turmi (try to do it on Monday, which is the market day). In the afternoon visit Kangate and Oromate (if you are very interested in seeing the different Ethnic groups, an extension of two days from Kangate or Oromate is possible to experience the Mago National Park, returning through Jinka and Key Afar). Spend the night in Turmi.
Day 5 - Return to Arba Minch. If the market of Turmi cannot be visited, on returning to Arba Minch, you can stop at Dimeka, which is one hour from Turmi, to see its Tuesdays and Saturdays market, which appears to be very interesting. Spend the night in Arba Minch.
Day 6 - Fly from Arba Minch to Addis. When arriving at Addis airport, it is possible to connect with Diri Dawa flight, one hour from Harar.
We catch the bus at 6AM for Harar, lying 425 km from Nazret. It takes seven hours and a half. It is not tiring, although the bus is not in a very good condition. Besides, and notwithstanding the discomfort, I am happy not to have to use the gold cage of the 4x4 vehicle anymore and being able to share the trip with the people of the land.
The route offers some very beautiful landscapes, especially the 126 kilometres that separate Arbereketi from Diri Dawa, but more beautiful landscapes are to be seen both in Tigray and on the route between Aksum and the Simiens Mountains National Park.
In any case, it is also possible to do the journey from Addis to Harar, round trip, by plane or rather combine one way plane with one way bus. Distance between both cities is of 565 km and it takes some nine and a half hours. The buses come out very early in the morning.
At midday we arrive in Harar. We sleep in Ras Hotel, an alternative which is not bad at all and quite calm, at a price of 21 euros.
We spent the afternoon on a walk through this Muslim town, which has remained almost like it was 300 years ago. We love it. We visit several large harari houses, where we talk with their owners. We did happen to meet on the street Carlos Mariné, a Catalan painter, who lives in Harar, married to an Ethiopian woman and converted to the Islamic faith.
We spent the whole morning walking along the streets of Harar, a place we are enjoying more and more. It is a city to be discovered in its inside, and that is why I advice to stay for two or three days in order to enjoy it, feel it, and get lost into it.
In the afternoon we pay visit to Carlos in his house. The conversation is very interesting. He shows us his works and my travel mate buys a watercolour and two drawings of him.
We continue strolling and enjoying Harar. We come near Rimbaud's House Museum, where we have an appointment with Carlos. After that, we go to the terrace of the coffee shop of the central square, where we have tea and beer and talk to an Ethiopian friend of Carlos, Shakib, who works in the Rimbaud's House Museum as a guide (Carlos can also be contacted through the Rimbaud's House Museum).
At midday we catch the bus for Dire Dawa, a one hour stretch from Harar, to go to the airport and fly to Addis, because there is no airport in Harar. When arriving at Dire Dawa, we walk around the city and its market. It is not bad at all. Afterwards, we go to the airport to catch the flight to Addis.
In Addis Ababa we sleep in Gion Hotel, which is very standard. The price is 65 euros. The last night in Ethiopia we will also spend the night here, but at that time, the rooms will happen to be much worse.
We leave very early for the airport to catch the 7AM morning flight to Mekele, but, when we arrive, we find out that they have rescheduled the flight for 9AM. Moreover, the flight has two hours of delay, because the one from Frankfurt, which connects with ours, is arriving with a delay as well. We have to wait for a long time. We then chat and have coffee with an Ethiopian man who lives in Australia and has come to visit his family living in a village near Aksum.
At midday we arrive at Mekele airport with a four hours delay.
Our trip to Tigray takes two days. For me it is the most impressive area in Ethiopia and the one that arose the most interest in me: its people, its religious art and its landscape. I have read in different sources that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to visit the rock-hewn churches of Tigray, because many are in remote areas, of difficult access and location and, in addition to that, if one happens to get to the place, the churches are often closed and the priests are not to be found.
For that reason, I decided to try and contact, by e-mail, with the director of the Tourism Office of Mekele, Mr. Kebele. I tell him our itinerary, which he finds titanic, and he arranges everything for us. He sets at our request a 4x4 vehicle, driven by its owner, Gebregiorgis Haddis, and a guide, Mr. Yohannes Kalle-ab, who happens to be himself the director of the Tourism Office of Wukro, city 45 km to the north of Mekele and the door access to the heart of the rock-hewn churches of Tigray.
I do strongly recommend, if you want to achieve this visit of the churches and monasteries of Tigray, that you prepare this part of the journey well in advance.
Gebregiorgis Haddis works as an advisor in Mekele, for Talent Development Consultants. He speaks English and is very nice, but he is not entirely familiar with the area of the churches, neither has he the contacts with the priests, therefore it is advisable to hire a guide, who has both the information and the contacts. His telephone numbers are: 251 0344 407438 (office); 251 0344 407709 (home); 251 0914 701887 (mobile). The price of the car is 80 euros per day, with gasoline included, but without air conditioning (Tigray is not hot in this time of the year and the windows of the car can be opened without problem). As regards Yohannes Kalle-ab he works as a guide for 15 euros per day (as for Spring 2007, Yohannes is no more living in Ethiopia, though Gebregiorgis Haddis is working from Summer 2007 together with a guide, Bereket, who is advisable and charges 10 euros per day).
I consider the choice of the guide as being of enormous importance, as he is the one who has contact with the priests and, at the same time, the only person who really has a command of the different paths towards the churches. On the other hand, I do strongly recommend to close well in advance the visit program that one intends to complete. During the day, there is time for just one pic-nic and this has to be clearly explained to the guide as well.
Just as it was arranged, Yohannes and Gebregiorgis are waiting for us at Mekele airport. They take us on a sightseeing car tour through Mekele, which I do not find special, apart from the fact that the city has grown a lot, being as it is that the current President of Ethiopia is precisely from Tigray.
We drive to the north for Wukro, where we visit the Chirkos Church, at 500 meters height from the town, and of easy access. It is very beautiful and a religious service is taking place, which we find beautiful.
Then, we drive east for one hour and a half through a wonderful landscape of green hills, villages possessing a unique architecture made of mud and straw, and people dressed in green-grey colours. Then, we arrive at the village of Atsbi, to visit Debre Selam Church, belonging to the group denominated with this name. In order to access the church, a 15 minutes walk up a steep hill has to be completed. The church is within an enclosure and the whole compound lets us breathless. It is build following the aksumite style.
The architecture in villages around Tigray causes such a great impression in us, completely different from the one of the South, that we ask Johannes if it is possible to visit one of the houses. A family shows us theirs. It is a great opportunity and we are full of enthusiasm. We then return to Wukro by the same road.
We spend two nights in Beheresege Hotel, which is not particularly advisable, but probably the only possible alternative. This first night I am offered a room without a shower, so that I have to use the one in my travel mate's. The second night, they change me to another room with shower, but as soon as I went to bed, fleas simply eat me. I wake up the guardian, who is sleeping on the floor of the veranda, and by signs I tell him what is happening to me and ask him to bring me back to my previous room, luckily still free. Finally, I manage to sleep.
We should have visited Medhane Alem Kesho church yesterday, but as we arrive at Mekele with a four hours delay, we agree with Yohannes to pay them 10 euros extra, get up very early and visit this church today, belonging to the so called takatisfi group, that I could by no means miss.
Just as arranged, we get up very early and drive 45 km to the north, with wonderful landscapes, to visit Medhane Alem Kesho Church, of easy access. The church is beautiful. The priests, as it is very early, are celebrating the religious services, that we find delighting. Then, they show us the crosses engraved in the roofs with the help of torches.
We return to Wukro, where we have breakfast and get ready to spend the day in the region of Gheralta with the intention of seeing the group of churches known by this name. Gheralta is a region of extreme beauty, where spectacular red mountains are to be seen everywhere, together with startling landscape.
We drive 15 km to the west and visit Abraha Atsbeha Church, which of extremely easy access. We like it a lot, mainly its paintings, that are being restored by an Italian team. From Abraha Atsbeha you can visit also Yohannes Maequdd Church, possessing beautiful frescoes in very good condition of conservation, I have been told. But it is necessary to climb forty minutes to arrive there and we do not have the time to visit. Later, I read the report of David Buxton: "This church of Saint John is the most interesting I have seen and is memorable, too, for its means of access which is narrow clef between bulging walls of bare, glaring sandstone". From Abraha Atsbeha, Debre Tsion Church can also be visited. I believe that the paintings are in a very bad condition and there is a 50 minutes walk up a very steep path. We do not visit it.
We drive 5 km further and come to the point where it is necessary to begin the ascent to visit Maryam Korkor Church, one of the fundamental churches of Tigray. We begin the one hour ascent. We are above 2.000 meters of altitude, it is hot and the first part of the ascent is very steep, following a land of rocks and enormous stones, through an extremely narrow gorge in between two endless vertical walls, which hardly allow penetration of any light. We come out to an open landscape in the heights, but due to the huge effort I invested, I feel as if I were about to lose consciousness. Therefore I stop. Yohannes knows how to act in these cases, and after a while, we continue. The priests wait for us. The church is beautiful, located within those huge and wild surroundings, so the effort is absolutely worthwhile. Just behind, at a distance of five minutes walk, a precious gem is to be discovered: Daniel Korkor church, an intimate place and very beautiful.
We have to go down now. We eat something in silence, enjoying the magic of this moment. But the climax of the journey, of my journey in Ethiopia, is waiting for us 6 km from where we are now, in Abuna Yemata Guh Church. We go there. It is 4PM when we arrive at the vicinity of the church. A group of people are doing public works in a road. The priests have been informed in advance, but they are not here. Yohannes sends a girl to look for them. We walk about fifteen minutes by a path that is not too difficult. We arrive at the feet of the rock of the Guh Mountains. The priests have already arrived.
We have to climb the wall of the mountain. We take our shoes and socks off, because it is necessary to put the checks in the holes of the wall, that along the centuries have been modelled by the priests when ascending to the church. I try to climb up, but separation between each of these holes is enormous. My legs are too short. Moreover, it is necessary to grip with the hands the cavities of the wall, but I do not have enough strength in the arms for pushing. My travel mate manages to climb. Yohannes tries to help me in pushing up, but I cannot take away my hands, as he tries to indicate to me, I am in panic. A priest wants to help me, but Yohannes shouts to him not to do it. Yohannes then manages to detach me from the rock and puts me down. He begins to do the climbing. I beg him to allow me to try it again, to what he responds that he is back for me shortly, but I know he will not. I find it very sad that I am left here. Gebregiorgis wants to stay with me, but I refuse and he also goes up. At this point, the priest, who wanted to help me before, starts making me signs, if I want to go up. I reply yes, and with his help from above and the one of a boy about eleven years old holding me from below, I am able to climb the first part, the impossible part for me. After that, the ascent is difficult but not impossible. When my travel mate spots me from a flat land where she is having a rest, she tells me Yohannes informed her that I was not climbing, to what she replied: "You don't know her".
We keep climbing and finally arrive at the top. We have to go around the mountain with our backs glued to the rock. The priests tell us not to look below, but I look, I do not have giddiness. We are at a terrible height and below us a circus of huge read mountains spreads before our eyes, of such a beauty difficult to beat within our planet. We arrive before a small door. We bend over and enter in the small church carpeted with grass. The priests indicate us to sit down. I think that they do it to make us rest after the tremendous tension lived, but immediately after sitting down and looking upwards I understand the sense of their indication and I feel an intense emotion, when seeing in the roof, in circle, a delicate painting of the XV century, in green and brown tones, of nine of the twelve Apostles. The walls are also full of beautiful paintings, which represent scenes of the life of Abuna Yemata. The priests allow us to touch their very old books of prayers.
The descent with the help of two priests is not easier, but more bearable. I already know what waits for me.
Later on, I read the account of Ivy Pearce, one of the first few westerners to visit the site: "I climbed up some pretty stiff stuff and then came face with only footholds and handgrips at irregular intervals. This climb I could not manage ace my arm were not long enough to reach the next handgrip to let my foot go to find the next foot grip to let my foot go to grasp firmly with my small hands. I did not want to take risks, so gave it up and sat on to small ledge below". On the other hand, Ruth Plant described the church like "...the most unusual church in the most unusual place, that place being majestic and awesome".
We ask the priests why they did not carve additional cavities so as to make ascent easier, and they tell us that the ones existing were made by God, what means they cannot touch them.
22 km to the south, from the place where we are right now, there is the possibility of visiting Abuna Gebre Mikael Church. I am of the view that its paintings are wonderful. The access is also very difficult, and it is for that reason that it is the least visited church. We do not visit it, because we do not have time. Had we had enough information before leaving, we would have stayed one day more in Tigray to visit this church and the one of Yohannes Maequddi. Further to the south, 15 km from the village of Abi Addi, there is also a possible visit to Gebriel Wukien Church, which I believe it is beautiful and Abba Yohannes Church, belonging both to the group of churches denominated tembien. The director of the Tourism Office of Mekele had told me that there was no road to access them from the place where we are, but Yohannes tells us that indeed there is an access way, and that there is even the possibility of visiting beautiful monasteries in that particular area.
The churches of Tigray leave an indelible trace on me. My advice is that you spent as longer as possible visiting these churches, as both they and the place where they are located are to be considered as unique. Notwithstanding the interest of the journey to the South, I would not devote more than one week to it, and three or four days should be invested in Tigray.
We return to sleep in Wukro. Some kilometres before arriving, when it is gloaming, we see a small caravan of about thirty camels, some donkeys with their loads and some men, who have come from Danakil desert mines to sell their salt to Gheralta and now they return again to the desert, nine days from here. We come out of the car to see them. How much I would have liked to go with them, live nine days with them. The image and the desire have remained in my heart, perhaps, some day I will attempt it. Perhaps, some day I will return to Tigray, without a time-limit, and go together with the men of the camels to their desert.
We do not go to Danakil desert. I did not have enough information about this place. Yohannes tells us that this place is something outside this world (Yohannes, I believe, is not someone who can be impressed very easily). This would mean making a trip extension of one week from Wukro. Yohannes has just recently organized this expedition for five French people he went with. The other guide, Bekeret, who was quoted supra, arranges getaways to Danakil Desert as well
Wilfred Thesiger describes his journey in Danakil Desert in the first chapter of Arabian Sands. Within the genre of travel literature, this book is one of the most extraordinary that has never been written. In it, Thesiger describes his journeys, between 1946 and 1950, in the Empty Quarter, the vast deserted area that extends in the remote south of Arabia. I have had the immense luck of reading this book two years ago, thanks to the recommendation of an interesting colleague.
At 7AM we catch the bus to the north to visit Aksum. The landscapes are magnificent. In the road to Aksum there is Debre Damo Monastery to be found, that I believe it is wonderful, but women are not allowed visiting it.
We arrive in Aksum at midday. We spend the whole afternoon visiting the city. It is difficult to give an opinion on the convenience or inconvenience of the visit to Aksum. It is the capital of the old aksumite empire. It remains very little of what it was. They say that almost everything is, still, buried. If one has little time and, except if one is a specialist or has a very special interest, maybe you can do without this visit.
I will remember Aksum for other reasons, though I will always remember when, seeing the Stelae Fields, I tried and imagine what the place may have been like. I will remember Aksum because it was there that we met a couple of kids, Abrham and Temesgen, who became our shades for two days, and had the particularity that one of them saved his life thanks to our intervention when we brought him to a hospital and took responsibility for him after he suffered from a vast infection. He is a boy around the age of ten, father's orphan, and whose mother lives on the charity of the church. He speaks good English, with American accent, due to the contact with the tourists that arrive in Aksum. He goes to the school and is very fast minded. He had a terrible infection, but he could not go to the hospital because his mother does not have medical insurance. It was in this situation that we decided to take him to the public hospital, because I insisted on the fact that it is necessary to go to this hospital and not to any local dispensary, due to the seriousness of his situation. When arriving at the hospital, we explained to the doctor, who also speaks English, the situation and told him that we would pay all the expenses. But the doctor told us that, since we are willing to do this, the hospital will not charge the attention to him, and suggests us instead that we buy in the hospital pharmacy all drugs required for the treatment. These cost us 6 euros.
About Aksum I will remember also Abatu Ensessa Church, its murals and its charming baptistery. The ancient Saint Mary of Zion Church cannot be visited by women and the new one does not have anything of interest for us. Next to the ancient church, in a contiguous building, legend has it that the Ark of the Covenant is to be found, an object nobody can see, except for a guardian specially chosen.
In the event of not visiting Aksum, I do recommend coming back to Mekele after visiting Tigray's churches, so as to catch there the flight to Lalibela. After having completed a visit of Lalibela, it is convenient to fly from there to Gondar, with the possibility of making an extension from this city to the Simiens Mountains National Park. Then, the most practical thing is to catch a bus from Gondar to Bahar Dar with the purpose of visiting the monasteries of Lake Tana. Finally, fly from Bahar Dar to Addis Ababa.
We get up at dawn to attend a religious service in the new Saint Mary of Zion Church. It will be an advance of what we will experience afterwards in its fullness, in Lalibela.
We continue visiting Aksum. We have lunch with the two kids. At 3PM we catch the bus for Shire. The itinerary takes two hours. Our objective is to go to Debark and then do some trekking in the Simiens Mountains National Park, but there are not direct buses from Aksum to Debark and on our arrival to Shire it is already too late to connect with the bus to Debarck, so that we have to spend the night in Shire.
In the middle of the road the bus breaks down. Since it is already darkening, and they do not have lamp, I lend them my lantern. Nobody knows how men manage to do it, but they fix it. I am surprised, that several men from some near village go their way close to us, but they do increase their pace without not even asking or looking at us to inquire what the problem may be. We spend the night in Shire, in Africa Hotel, a complete disgrace. I don't know if there may be a better alternative.
At 6AM we catch a bus for Debark. It is supposed to run for three or four hours, but it lasts seven. It breaks down, but as on the previous day, they manage to repair it, God knows how. During the whole trip, the landscape is beautiful, with spectacular mountains. We are running a not asphalted road, full of bents that terrorize you by just looking downwards, taking into account the type of bus we are using. The villages where we stopped to have breakfast and repair the bus have a fascinating architecture.
We arrive at Debark. We want to go to Simien Mountains National Park to spend the night, but we do not know very well how to make arrangements. We tend to think that the Desk Office of the Park is at the entrance, so we ask some truck drivers to take us there. Our surprise is that they take us to the end of the street where we are, which is where the Office Information is. Later on, we will realize that the entrance of the park is about 20 km away from this office. To take us at the end of the street we have been asked and demanded in advance a rate of 8 euros. When we realize this, we put it into knowledge of the director of the office and they give us a refund. In the office they arrange for us, not without difficulty, our stay in the park.
LThen we will find out that people, usually, book a tour package in advance to spend either two or three days in the park, from Debark or from Gondar, and this is quite convenient in terms of price, we are told (I was recommended in Gondar, in Summer 2007, Explore Abyssinia Travel, tel. 252 058 111 8965). Unfortunately, on our arrival there it is too late and we cannot get any package for today. We decide to catch the only 4x4 vehicle available, for which they charge us a fortune of 80 euros that will enable us to travel 23 km to the first camp of the park. It is our only alternative if we want to spend the night in the National Park. A guide and an armed scout come with us, on a compulsory basis. Everything comes out to be very expensive.
We spend the night in Sankaber Camp. It is New Year's Eve day. A group of French people are having a big party. We cook rice and tuna. The night is very cold.
We trek five hours from Sankaber Camp to Geech Camp. The mules transport our stuff. The first three hours, the trek is very beautiful. We see many gelada baboons, which are primates with red bellies. We have a picnic besides the Jimba River. But, the last two hours of the trek are terrible, along an eroded moor, with a horrible sun beating down. We arrive at Geech Camp. We are sweaty and very tired. We take a shower in icy water that makes me tremble and worsens my condition as regards my cold.
In the camp, we happen to meet the first Spanish girl during our journey, who lives in Madrid, and comes together with her boyfriend, an English man. At dusk, we enjoy a two hours beautiful trek, going and returning, to Cadi Mountain. Then, we have dinner. The menu is the same as it was the day before.
We want to return to Debark but we do not have a car. We take the risk of leaving the camp with the hope of finding a truck in Ambaras, on the track of the Park. We rent some mules to carry us and our stuff. We leave at dawn and we walk one hour to the most beautiful part of the park, which is the deep cliffs of Imet Gogo (3.926 meters), with grandiose pinnacles and uncountable needles and canyons.
We think that the cliffs of Imet Gogo are next to Geech Camp and not a long hour from there. For that reason, we tell our guide that we only want to go by mule after seeing Imet Gogo. However, when we realise how hard the trek is, how far away the cliffs are, and that this chapped moor does not have any interest, we simply regret our luck. When a quarter of an hour is left to reach the cliffs, mules arrive from the village of Geech and we mount on them, happy to rest our bodies. The mules with our stuff follow a different route. Simiens Mountains, with red and mauve tones, stick out in its entire splendour from Imet Gogo. The whole park is of great beauty, one of the most beautiful surroundings - it may be - to be found on earth.
The trekking to Imet Gogo has been very hard and when we undertake the way again, the only thing we want is to be on the mules, but this is not always possible, so that we either walk or go on them, depending on how the path is. We do not follow a given path, but rather the alternative our scout, Mandafo, decides through the landscapes of the park, with a composition and flora that are unique. I experience the feeling that very few human beings have gone through these places before. Due to the hardness of the route we do suffer a delay and we do not know if we will be able to catch any truck that may go its way through Ambaras. When arriving there, we spot a 4x4 vehicle hired by a charming Belgian couple, who are kind enough to give us a lift to Debark (after negotiating with their driver that we should tip him 20 euros for the drive). We then have a quick lunch and catch the bus to Gondar.
In the morning we visit Debre Berhan Selassie Church, from the XVII century: absolutely marvelous. The winged painted heads of eighty Ethiopians cherubs cover the whole ceiling. All have lightly different expressions. Not less impressive than the ceiling, are the paintings on the walls. One of them is the portrait of Emperor Iyasu I, the church's founder. Another one is the image of the Prophet Mohammed, on a camel, being led by a devil and finally there is the representation of Hell as well.
We continue visiting the rest of the city and at the end of the afternoon we return to Debre Berhan Selassie Church.
We get up at dawn to attend the religious service in Debre Berhan Selassie Church. We love it. We never get tired of attending the religious services of the Coptic liturgy. We have breakfast and we leave as quickly as possible to the airport, as we have to catch the flight to Lalibela. The best thing to do would have been to catch a bus to Bahar Dar and from there fly to Lalibela, but due to celebrations of the Christmas festivity in Ethiopia, 7 January, there are a lot of problems with the flights and we cannot do it.
We arrive at Lalibela, where we lodge four nights in Jerusalem Hotel, which Wondo has reserved for us; as arriving at Lalibela without a hotel reservation the days around Ethiopian Christmas is very risky. The Jerusalem is not a luxurious hotel, but it is very comfortable. The rooms are roomy and silent, with splendid views to the mountains, and the service is good. The price is 50 dollars. Restaurant in the hotel is also quite satisfactory.
We spend the afternoon on a visit to the enclosure of the churches dug in the rock, which is full of pilgrims. They have come from all over Ethiopia to celebrate Christmas or to fulfill some promise. We visit seven of the eleven churches of the enclosure. It is a sacred and mysterious place, where religious services take place on a daily basis, full of passageways to access from one church to another. The interior of the churches is not very appealing, as the most impressive thing in Lalibela is the whole atmosphere and staring at the very essence of people, their devotion.
We spend the whole morning completing the visit to the enclosure of the churches. It is good to return. This place is very big and it takes time to get acquainted with the space. There are more pilgrims today, as they keep arriving. I sit down in front of the porch of Bet Maryam Church, and I am fascinated contemplating the pilgrims, one by one, who go out through the small door of the tunnel that connects the church of Bet Medhane Alem with the great court composed by the churches of Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel and Bet Danaghel. Each pilgrim is a complete world for me: their faces, their clothes, their light, their complete isolation from the outside world. It is a multitude, very diverse ethnically, but each one of them is so individual and specific.
In the afternoon, we have a 4x4 vehicle available with a driver and a guide. The car costs us 70 euros and the guide 15. Both for today and the day after, it was Mohammed, the director of the Jerusalem Hotel and Wondo's friend, who helps us to hire these services. First we visit the interesting Yemrehanna Christ Church, 21 km to the west of Lalibela. There are many pilgrims in the neighborhoods. It is a stage in their pilgrimage. Local people offer them food. They sleep and pray here. I start thinking about what the pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostella may have been like in the Middle Ages.
5 km from here is Arbatu Ensessa Church. It is not interesting. Several priests, sitting down on the floor in the exterior of the church, are piling money that the rich pilgrims have given to them. This will be later distributed among themselves for the purposes of helping the poorer. Near here, we visit Bilbila Chirkos Church. I do not find it interesting either. From the three churches we have visited this afternoon, I only recommend to visit the one of Yemrehanna Kristos, by taxi, as this means an important saving in time and money.
We arrive at Labilea around 6PM. We invite the Belgians, who brought us from Ambaras to Debark, to have dinner in our hotel. Two Catalan girls are lodged in their hotel, but one of them does not feel well and they do not come with us for dinner. Kalem, our driver to the South, also joins us. He is now travelling with a group of Australians in Lalibela. The dinner is both great and very pleasant.
We do have the 4x4 vehicle for the day. We pay 80 euros for the car and 25 euros for the guide. Our first stop is 6 km from Lalibela to visit Na'akuto La'ab Church. It is not too interesting. The pilgrims are in the church. A priest reads a text in Ge'ez, the ancient language, like a kind of Latin, still used in Ethiopia and Eritrea today by the priests of the Coptic Church, and another priest is translating it to Amharic, today, the official language in Ethiopia.
We continue our route for one hour and a half, and arrive at the entrance of Geneta Maryam Church. We do not visit it now, since our objective this morning is to arrive at the small Machina Maryam Church, which is in the mountains.
A priest of Bet Amanuel Church, which is part of the enclosure of the churches of Lalibela, and his adolescent nephew, son of another priest also from Bet Amanuel (because this small church has thirty priests), wait for us with two mules which they have brought from Lalibela. Hiring the mules is convenient, because, more or less, 70% of the ascent and 35% of the descent is completed on the mules.
We begin the ascent. The landscape is wonderful. At times we have to get off the mules, because the road is very dangerous. In front of me my travel mate rides the mule, guided by the priest. My mule, which goes behind, guided by the young boy, is very intelligent. When the way indicated by the priest is in good condition, the mule will follow it, but in the event of it being difficult or dangerous, the mule will turn apart and follow its own way. Not all the mules follow this pattern. These mules, this time, are much better educated and guided than our mules of the Simiens Mountains National Park. After two hours of very hard ascent, together with plenty of stress, we arrive at Machina Maryam. The effort is worthwhile. A priest waits for us. They have been able to contact him. The director of the hotel has tried to discourage us from going, due to the difficulty of the road and the efforts to contact the priest, although the landscape, he tells us, would make in itself the effort worthwhile.
It is a tiny church, isolated in the highest part of the mountain inside a walled enclosure and full of very primitive delicate frescoes. It is startling. I now think of those foreign travellers who ran Spain in the XIX and beginnings of the XX century visiting on mule our remote Romanic small churches, and I think that perhaps they felt then the same I am feeling right now. We do our way down back again.
It's 4PM. We visit the interesting Geneta Maryam Church with beautiful paintings from the XIII century and twenty-four pillars, each representing the old people of the Apocalypse and the Apostles. The visit has to be quick, given to the fact that priests must have dinner to go to religious services, let us not forget that today is Christmas Eve in Ethiopia. I do not know if other days the priests will have more time, for that reason I advise to leave Lalibela at 6.30AM and not at 8AM, as we do on our guide's advice.
We arrive at Lalibela, have dinner in the hotel and leave to the enclosure of the churches. It is there that the Christmas celebration of the religious services begins at 8PM in the court composed by Bet Maryam, Bet Meskel and Bet Danaghel Churches. There is a multitude. Coming into the court is something of a heroic action. Even making a step, once inside, happens to be impossible. We try it though. A bishop from Addis Ababa, who takes part in the ceremony and whom we met two days before in the taxi coming from the airport, identifies us visually. He makes us signs, and I do not know how, people start leaving us some room, what helps us go to the front line. There are hundreds and hundreds of priests dressed in white, who sing, dance and shake their wooden and metal rattles. In the centre of the court, a group of priests, with fabulous dresses, dances in a vibrating rhythm, in couples, while the multitude sings. At one moment, in the frenzy of the sound of the rattles, among dances and songs, the priests and the multitude reach the paroxysm of the fervour and one experiences the feeling that something will break in the space. For a short instant, in the most absolute silence, one continues hearing the trembling that was previously experienced. Then, a priest with a sweet and beautiful voice intonates a hymn. After, all restarts again. Everything is very surprising. The Coptic liturgy is very rich.
At midnight we decide to go to rest a bit at the hotel.
We return at 4AM to the celebration of the religious services. To enter again is not an easy thing. My travel mate sees a policeman, of whom she had taken a picture the day before. It is thanks to his intervention that we manage to get to the court again. People, including the priests, are sleeping on the floor. At dawn the religious services are renewed. The procession begins. The priests go up on the border of the rock surrounding the court of the churches. People sing excitedly, while the priests, on top of the rock, balance following the rhythm of the songs. Then, they begin to go down and concentrate in the middle of the court. Aesthetically it is very beautiful. When everything finishes it is 9AM.
Here in Lalibela, the celebration of the Epiphany (Timkal), on the 19 January, seems to be as beautiful as the celebration of Christmas (Leddet), maybe even more. However, some people say that the most interesting place for the celebration of the Timkal is Gondar.
We return to the hotel, where we take a shower and have breakfast. If we had had a flight for Bahar Dar, we would have left on the 11:45 plane, because the visit of Lalibela is ended, but as this is not possible, we decide to give ourselves one day rest. We then go for a tour around the market. Then, we eat in the Blue, which is recommended to us in Harar by Carlos, the Catalan painter, who knows the owner. We find here the fourth and last Spanish girl of our journey. She lives in Germany. She travels alone. We ask her why she has chosen Ethiopia and she tells us that she met in two different places two couples who had travelled a lot and she had asked them which one was for them the most interesting country of all those they had visited, and both had answered her Ethiopia.We spent the afternoon walking peacefully around the enclosure of the churches, already very familiar to us. There are still pilgrims here to be seen, but rather from Addis Ababa or other cities, who are doing the tour of the churches like us.
We catch the flight for Bahar Dar at 11:45AM. We arrive at midday. We lodge in a new, central and very good hotel, The Summerland, which price is 38 euros.
We eat a magnificent fish in the restaurant of Tana Hotel, on the edge of Lake Tana. There, we did meet a very nice German couple, Peter and Dauphine, whose acquaintance we had made at the bus station of Shire and crossed again later on at the hotel in Gondar. We do arrange things to visit together, the day after very early in the morning, the monasteries of the lake.
The price of the boat, which we hire in Tana Hotel, is 60 euros for the four. We hire a speedy boat, which is more expensive, because by all means we want to see Nagar Selassie Monastery, located at quite a distance, and we have to catch the 16:30 flight tomorrow for Addis.
In the afternoon we go for a walk around the border of the lake and we stared the pelicans. We have dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, though without too much satisfaction.
At dawn, we embarked together with Peter (Dauphine suffers from flu and she does not come) to visit the monasteries of Lake Tana. We sail for two hours to arrive in front of Nagar Selassie Monastery, which is the most far apart of all. The church is a marvel, absolutely a must to visit: full of very extremely superb art, silence and peace.
We return, sailing one hour, to Ura Kidane Meret Monastery. The church is also very beautiful, but not as much as the previous one. Some boys try to give us a kind of receipt and make us pay for the access to the small wood where the church is located. We do not pay. We mention this extreme to the priest in charge of the church, who speaks English, but he does not even pay attention. All this takes away the tranquillity and the peace.
Finally, we sail to see Azwa Maryam Church, but it is not worthwhile. In Lake Tana, being a woman, the two only monasteries that are worth a visit are Nagar Selassie and Ura Kidane Meret. Peter tells us that he refused, the previous day, to visit a monastery of the lake where only men were admitted.
We return to Bahar Dar and we go as quickly as possible to the airport to catch the flight, one hour long, to Addis Ababa.
At night, we have dinner with Wondo in a typical restaurant with Ethiopian music, where, except for a Canadian couple, the other people seem to be Ethiopians.
We have breakfast at Wondo's place. He leaves us in front of the door of the National Museum, but it is a Muslim festivity and therefore it is closed. We then spent the whole morning strolling the streets of Addis Abeba, not of particular interest in my view, and visited the market. In the afternoon, we walked up to Entoto Maryam Church, where a religious service is taking place. The priest is at the door of the church and people are seated in theoutside. We want to see the murals paintings, but to our inconvenience it is not allowed to come in during religious services. We leave, as we do not have enough time to wait. The views from the Entoto Mountains, where this church is located, are very beautiful.
We dine in a restaurant the very last inyera, which my travel mate likes very much, and we leave for the airport, because our flight to Frankfurt takes off at 23:45PM, with Ethiopian Airlines. The flight runs smoothly, although some Africans, who speak Portuguese, and whose seats are behind ours, spend all night long partying. It is the first time that I see something like that in a night flight.
We arrive at Frankfurt at 5:15AM the following day and we take off with Iberia three hours later to Madrid, where we land at 10:30AM.