Home :: NORTHERN ETHIOPIA OVERLAND - PART TWO: AXUM TO LALIBELA: a trip through history

NORTHERN ETHIOPIA OVERLAND - PART TWO: AXUM TO LALIBELA: a trip through history

NORTHERN ETHIOPIA OVERLAND: PART TWO: AXUM TO LALIBELA

by Diana McLeod



DAY 7 - AXUM TO HAWSEIN: PREHISTORIC AFRICA
and A SECRET MOUNTAIN MONASTERY

On this day we drove to the ruins of Yeha, dating from the Eighth to the Fifth Centuries B.C. This is the largest and most significant site of Bronze Age Civilization yet found in the Horn of Africa. There were two areas of importance, a rambling palace complex and an imposingly tall structure called “The Great Temple.” Archaeologists were restoring the temple walls and excavating the palace ruins. We were able to watch the teams at work, which was exciting to see.

The sites were pretty impressive, considering the fact that Africa has no indigenous animals that can be domesticated (except for Guinea Fowl). All farm animals were imported into Africa much later, from other continents. The lack of domesticated livestock really held back African development south of the navigable Nile. It forced people to spread out and remain semi- nomadic, in order to hunt wild game. They couldn't usually cluster in large towns, because that would have depopulated the wild herds in the area.

In the afternoon, we left the main road. Our driver Sisay threw the Land Rover into four wheel drive, and we entered into a rugged area of high cliffs and towering mesas. The imposing terrain reminded me of the stone escarpments of Wadi Rum in Jordan (where many of the epic scenes of the movie “Laurence of Arabia” were filmed). Hardscrabble homesteads of piled stone and thatch clung to a meager existence wherever their inhabitants could find water in the cruel desert. The stonework of the houses and the stone walls around them represented a tremendously difficult amount of labor. I can’'t imagine being required to pile stones without mortar to build my house, and then to struggle to keep the roof maintained, using only straw.

At last we reached our goal:– a tiny village at the end of the dirt road. From there, we climbed up hundreds of sandstone steps carved directly into the bedrock until we reached the base of a large mesa. About a hundred feet above us, on a nearly vertical cliff, there was a wooden doorway. Hanging from this portal was one long hemp rope, and a second rope, made of cured cowhide. This was the only entrance to an ancient monastery built on top of the cliff. The gatekeeper looked down, ready to hold the safety rope, so that Dave could scale the cliff.

As a woman, I was forbidden to climb it, because of the monastery above. Frankly, I was relieved. Even though I was dying of curiosity, I could never have scaled such a challenging rock face. It was a long way up. Our driver Sisay went up first. They tied the safety line around him, and he used the hemp rope as he struggled to find footholds. His arm muscles were straining, and he slipped a couple of times. Then it was Dave’'s turn. He got about halfway up, but he couldn'’t get a grip on the slippery rope, and his sneakers were sliding on the footholds. I think that he would have made it, if he had been wearing his hiking boots. He turned back, and it was probably just as well. It was too dangerous! But I bet the wizened old monks go up and down just like mountain goats. After all, they’'ve been practicing since childhood.

That night, they put us up in a wonderful place called the Gheralta Lodge. After three days of scruffy hotels, the tour planner thought we would be ready for something special. (And they were right -– to anybody contemplating taking the Northern Route in Ethiopia, take this advice: – go cheap elsewhere, so that you can book here!) The Gheralta was a series of luxurious stone villas out in the countryside, stylishly designed by its Italian owners. Chic and clean and charming, they were a treat! After days of being trapped in funky hotels in the center of large towns, it was delightful to be able to walk around by ourselves in the African countryside.

The Western edge of the resort'’s land had a magnificent view of the red rock cliffs on the far side of the valley. We strolled over to the stone wall and gazed out at the late afternoon’ sun'’s golden rays. Of course, the inevitable pile of kids from scattered huts below came running up as soon as they spotted us. We peered over the stone wall and smiled at each other. Dave soon made friends with them, and he started a little game of piling small rocks on top of each other, all along the top of the wall. The kids soon set about making little piles of their own, and we got quite a little competition going. They were all pretty good at it. I was the judge, and I gave points for artistry as well as for number of rocks piled. It was a lot of fun. I bet that some of our little cairns are still there, decorating the stone wall.

When the sun dipped low, we excused ourselves and said goodbye, because we wanted to walk to the top of the hill to take pictures. There were ancient steps carved right into the sandstone as we went up. Rock Hyrax scampered about. They are very strange animals. They look like a cat sized rodent, but their closest living animal relative is,– believe it or not, – the elephant. They seemed intelligent and agile, communicating with each other using a distinctive language of trills, chirps and whistles. They even managed to climb up into the trees, despite their fat bodies.

Dave and I also climbed a tree! It was a magnificently large bushy tree, with spreading stair–like branches. It was so easy to climb, we simply couldn’'t resist. I soon found myself fantasizing about tree house designs.

Dinner at the Gheralta was an enjoyable affair. Our tablemates were from Slovenia. One of them was the European C.E.O. of the Goodyear Corporation. What a great conversationalist! Of course, his command of the English language was dazzling. (He'’d spent quite a lot of time in the U.S.) Dave and I dove straight into world politics and economics– and it was a most enlightening discussion. The cuisine was delicious and mostly organic, grown from the hotel'’s own gardens. We washed it down with Ethiopian honey wine.

That night, we were able to get our first good look at the African night sky out in the countryside. The stars were radiant. It’'s sad to think that, in the urban northeastern U.S., the light of the stars is diminished by our own electrical excesses, and we cannot see the stars nearly well as we could see them in Africa. That night, they lit up the whole sky so brightly they almost created shadows. The Milky Way was a luminous bridal veil woven of starlight gauze and embroidered with diamonds. The familiar stars I'’ve looked at since childhood were all there, although they were turned about at unfamiliar angles. I had to look twice to find the North Star. But we didn'’t need our flashlights to find our peaceful, cozy bungalow.

DAY 8: DON'’T LOOK DOWN!
THE ANCIENT CAVE CHURCHES OF MARYAM KORKOR

The next morning, we left the Gheralta Lodge and headed east, towards the province of Tigray. It was a beautiful, sunny morning. We turned off the main one, and, once again, headed into rough terrain. We picked up our local guide and drove to the outskirts of a small village, where we encountered a large group of men who were also determined to “guide” us. Our driver Sisay had to use both diplomacy and firmness to get them to leave us alone. Voices were raised. Dave and I pantomimed that we were willing to turn back and go somewhere else if the issue was not resolved. We also demonstrated our unwillingness to give them money. It took a while, but eventually they let us leave without them.

The cliff face went straight up, and I wondered where the trail was, until I saw that there was a crack in the rock. At some point in history, an upwelling of lava had forced its way up, splitting the older sedimentary rocks apart. The lava had hardened into a black seam of basalt. Basalt often “crystallizes,” making six sided black crystals as big as logs. In this case, they were turned lengthwise; creating a natural flight of “stairs” inside a chasm “staircase” that was four to eight feet wide. It was easy and safe to climb, with natural handholds on both sides. We were also able to see evidence of ancient sea fossils in the sandstone around us.

We finally reached the top of the lower mesa, enjoying a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Nearby, there was a “shepherd'’s cave.” It undoubtedly had been originally hollowed out for use as a dwelling, but our guide explained that it had later been converted into a very primitive church. Now it lay abandoned, but the local goatherders were still using it as a shelter during mountain storms. There was a cozy firepit inside, and even a “picture window” with a stunning view of the canyon. Definitely Flintstones.

Back outdoors, we took a look at the next part of the ascent. There was an incredibly steep section, which was right over a near vertical drop of over two hundred feet. Our guides were urging us to climb up, using a series of small hand and foot holds. I thought they were crazy, and I would have turned back, except for one thing:– the stone beneath my feet gripped like sandpaper. Our guide (and one young boy who joined us partway up) both scrambled up the cliff like a pair of mountain goats. They held out their hands for me. One spot was intensely difficult, with a single handhold to pull myself up with, and certain death below, if I fell, but I finally made it over the rim. Part of me wondered how in hell I was going to get back down again, but I put those thoughts on hold, and prepared for the next challenges.

There were several other tough spots, but I tried to focus on what a beautiful day it was, and on the ancient sites at the top. After being denied access to yesterday'’s monastery, I was determined not to let this one get away. At last, we reached the top, and we saw the stone wall that designated sacred ground. The entrance to the cave church was not particularly memorable, but the interior was. It was almost a cathedral! Pillars reared upwards like tree trunks, supporting a broad ceiling that was at least two and a half stories above our heads. The sanctuary was quite large, for a hollowed out cave. It would hold a fairly good sized congregation on holy days. An old priest was inside, and he gladly showed us around, pointing out some niches in the walls that supposedly held the graves of local saints. Dave tipped the old fellow quite well, and he surprised us both by giving Dave a huge hug. He even laid his head on Dave'’s chest. It was quite touching.

On the other side of the mesa, a breathtakingly narrow trail took us to the other church. It was not easy to look almost straight down at the Land Rover, parked hundreds of feet below us, but the view of the valley was stunning. I was thankful for the lack of wind. There were no railings up there!

The second “church” was a mere hole in the cliff, which we had to crawl through. Inside, there were two chambers carved out of the sandstone. One was a simple domed cave, with a mat on the floor and a few crude paintings on the walls. The second chamber held the tomb of a local saint, and we were forbidden to enter that one. But the old priest gave us his warm blessing, and told us that this church dated from the first century A.D. I was skeptical that Christianity made it that far south that quickly, but it was possible. Or, maybe the cave was in use by the first century A.D., and it was converted to Christianity a bit later.

We spent the night at the “Hilltop” hotel and bungalows. This place, at one time, must have been quite the showplace. It was high on a hill, and built so that guests could enjoy the view while dining. Sadly, it showed many signs of decay, especially the old defunct swimming pool, which was cracking and crumbling as the jungle quickly reclaimed it. We stayed in one of the hotel bungalows, which were built among a series of paths. The walkways crossed back and forth under cedar trees and under trellises weighed down with tangles of overhanging vines. Large black ravens squabbled and cawed overhead. The tunnels of vegetation were interesting and a bit creepy, – like the maze in Harry Potter.

 

DAY 9: ROAD TO LALIBELA

Reviewing my handwritten trip’s diary of this day, I noticed that I made no entries during most of the journey to Lalibela. The reason was that it would have been impossible for me to write during most of the trip. The road was far too rough.

We started off on a boring, modern highway, without any memorable features. There was only one moment of note: On the road near the Djibouti border, we saw a sight that shall soon fade into memory: a salt caravan. Men were bringing salt from the salt lakes of the Danakil Desert to markets in Ethiopia. The line of decorated and heavily laden camels plodded stoically along the edge of the modern highway, looking sadly out of place among modern trucks and heavy construction vehicles. The caravan’s ragtag band of camel drivers walked alongside, with their heads held high, despite the choking dust and diesel exhaust. Our driver Sisay told us that these historic caravans are rapidly becoming things of the past as the African Horn modernizes. For me, it was a thrill to see these people, who were probably Afar tribesmen, because I had written about them and their salt caravans in my novel.

The road south took us up and down several rugged mountain passes. The vegetation was more desert-like in this part of the country, and the cactus plants beside the highway were all in bloom. In the afternoon, we branched off from the main highway and took a dirt road shortcut to Lalibela. It was extremely rough going, with loose gravel sliding beneath our wheels. Our driver Sisay didn'’t talk much. He was very busy concentrating on the road'’s challenging bumps, twists and turns. Once again, I was glad we had picked such a good driver and a strong vehicle, but as we got further and further out into the deserted countryside, I began to wish we had packed more water in case of vehicle failure or other emergency. We were miles away from any town or village! We didn’'t see another vehicle for more than an hour. The bush was dead dry, rugged and rocky, and the vegetation was thorny and scraggly. The few homesteads we passed by looked very impoverished and the cattle were scrawny and unhealthy, without any decent grazing land to forage from. I had to feel sorry for people unlucky enough to be born into such a difficult area, doomed to struggle against an incredibly challenging and merciless environment for their entire lives. The fact that they can live there at all is a tribute to their skills and determination. I bet an Ethiopian farmer could teach an American some incredible desert survivalist techniques.

The road climbed up and over yet another major mountain pass, and then plunged downwards into another deep valley. As we were heading into the series of dogbone switchbacks down the mountain, we passed a solitary farmstead with a group of kids outside. The kids immediately put on their best smiles and started doing a little comic dance for us. (Many of the vehicles that take this road are tourist buses or cars, so the kids were fairly used to seeing rich foreigners). We smiled and waved. The Land Rover took the next hairpin turn down into the next switchback, and we descended to the next level, about eighty feet below. And there were those kids again! They had climbed frantically down the steep embankment to meet us. Sure enough, they did their little dance, and then, as soon as we went by, they ran as fast as they could run to get down to the next turn. They did this two more times, descending several hundred feet, hoping for a rich tip from the foreign tourists.

Unfortunately for them, we’'ve been conditioned to turn away from roadside beggars overseas. All too often, they are forced to beg in urban traffic in India, where adults make small children wander between the cars at busy intersections or highway interchanges, which exposes them to gasoline and diesel pollution and sudden death by automobile or truck. We turn a cold shoulder to this kind of exploitation, because it endangers children needlessly. Our first reaction to these kids was therefore an automatic “no.” We drove off down the mountain. Afterward, I began to have second thoughts. Their little dance routine was clever and amusing, and I knew they had quite a long, thirsty, empty-handed hike back up the big hill to get home.

Ah well, I thought, money would be better spent on donations to a real charity. I would then be assured that it would not be wasted on sweets or junk food, especially when these things make children sick if they’re not used to the sugar and chemicals. On the other hand, were we depriving these kids of a chance to earn their keep and help their mom? These issues always weigh heavily on my heart when I’'m abroad. It’s vitally important to help, but there is a right way and a wrong way, and it’s not always easy to know which is which. No matter how careful one is, there are times when there is no right answer, and I feel I’'m doing harm no matter what I do. I just wish I could feed the whole country.

And then, I thought: hey, these kids were the lucky ones. Their home was right at the viewpoint at the top of the valley, where most tourist cars stopped for pictures. They had the perfect location to rake in tips. I bet they were making plenty. I'’ve seen tourists tip the equivalent to a working man'’s daily salary. I told myself that I should stop feeling so badly for these kids. It’'s the kids who don'’t live right on the main road who I should feel sorry for. I planned to make it up to the other kids with charitable giving.

We kept descending until we hit the valley floor, crossed it, and started back up the other side to the town of Lalibela, which we could see perched on cliffs above. It was an interesting looking town, with an eclectic mix of modern hotels, concrete homes and traditional huts, all jumbled together at the edge of the cliffs.

 

EVENING OF DAY 9: BIRDWATCHING IN LALIBELA

Throughout the whole Northern trip, we had driven through miles of open, deforested land, cleared for agriculture. With the exception of the Simien Mountains National Park, we’'d had virtually no chance to experience African wildlife at all. That'’s why I was so delighted with our little hotel in Lalibela. It was a small hotel, situated almost at the edge of town, and our room was on the second story in the back, with a lovely back porch facing some trees.

We settled in and purchased some cold beer to enjoy on our balcony. We had ringside seats to some excellent birding! There were so many types– and they were very colorful, interesting and fun to watch! One of the trees was covered in sprays of purple flowers, and little sunbirds flitted around them, sipping at the nectar with long, curved beaks. Sunbirds are very small, not dissimilar to hummingbirds, with feathers that flash iridescent green or blue when the light hits them just right. High in the eucalyptus tree, a raucous flock of brown Hornbills ruled the roost – until a flock of ravens bullied them out. There was another tree that was bearing fruit, and a noisy flock of seed eating birds enjoyed the feast. They looked like cedar waxwings, only with more color: red tufts on top of their heads and stripes along their elegant long tails. Additional songbirds made little cameo appearances in the trees: little finches and wrens, and other colorful African species that I'’ve not been able to identify. I counted over fifteen varieties!

In part three of this diary, we will explore the famous stone churches of Lalibela and complete this amazing road trip. Thanks for reading! Diana


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