by Jenny Makepeace

Among churches neighboring  Lalibela, one is Yemerhane Kiristos  (Christ Show us the Way),  situated about 50 k out of Lalibela, 11,000 feet uplalibela church a gorge thick with wild olive, big junipers, and eucalyptus.

The tiny village where we left the vehicle has an empty fountain in the main ‘square’.

We walked uphill along a well built path to this marble, timber and stone built church set inside a vast basalt cave.

In a far corner lie many skeletons, one in an open narrow wooden coffin, its hand held out as though in supplication, one or two skulls lie on the hay strewn floor.

These are said to be the remains of pilgrims who journeyed here from as far as Awasa many centuries ago and never returned.  Could be anyone really in a more recent massacre, but the skulls are not much bigger than ostrich eggs which suggests they are pretty ancient.

Pilgrims dressed in buff colored shammas with embroidered edges, often barefoot are gathering.  The floor is covered in bamboo overlaid with the hay which makes it more comfortable for people to sleep here. Many have traveled for many days and will remain until after the Christmas festival.

All along the route people were walking to market with sacks on their backs or on donkeys, hens or cockerels tied upside down to bundles and bags, firewood, goats, one donkey with foal at foot.

At one point an enormous rock had rolled off the mountain into the road and was being heaved over the edge by a crowd of men with poles.  Many men were carrying these 20ft long poles, somewhere we’ve seen camels carrying them too.

There are tiny groups of thatched buildings on the hillsides.  We’ve seen several men with guns, including one sitting on the edge of the fountain behind me whilst we drank Coke. They are the equivalent of local police and their presence prevents  crime.

We both feel a sense of embarrassment, riding along in a four wheel drive whilst these people struggle for miles with heavy loads.  One goatherd with a large flock in the middle of nowhere, had a two day walk to market.

I suppose much of Africa is like this, only recently have roads been built connecting settlements along major routes, beyond them everyone walks.

Many houses are thatched with little topknots holding the thatch at the apex, one had an  enamel bottomless teapot holding the ends of the thatch.  Thorn bushes protect the grain yards. There is sisal, aloe and variegated agave. Its market day in Lalibela, hence the many locals on the roads.

This market can be seen in the distance from our bedroom. Waves of sound drift across the valley and through binoculars one can see throngs of people many with blue or black umbrellas, trading in the open or under orange plastic sheeting.  The general color is dun.

The drive to the basalt cave church would have been worthwhile for the sheer beauty of the scenery, even without the church. On our return to the airport we passed a herdsman driving a large group of animals down the switchback mountain, using his stick to beat them away from the vehicle.

One poor donkey had its front leg tied up, so it was hopping along on three, simply cannot understand this mindless cruelty.

In the National parks there is a large notice proclaiming that animals have feelings too and must be respected, no stones to be thrown at the baboons etc. Pity this edict does not apply to the hardworking domestic animals.

One begins to understand the monumental task facing the Brooke.  The harness used mainly consists of harsh twisted rope, or rawhide used to strap on bundles and running through mouths.

It seems that the advent of plastic has immeasurably improved the life of these people, previously everything needing a container, such as water, was carried in heavy ceramic or maybe metal containers.

Small boys chase the vehicle shouting ‘Highland, highland’ this is the general term used for the bottled water, but now they want the containers.

Flight from Lalibela  to Gondar  by Fokker 50, 35 minutes.

We fly across a landscape of high ridges and flat topped hills. Their sides fissured by erosion. Tiny white lines indicate paths up to the tops where any land remotely flat provides a field. They intersect by dry river beds which join a larger valley where a charcoal line glints with moisture in a breadth of gravel.

From 17,000 feet it is hard to discern settlements but the field patterns and pale circles made by the threshing and occasionally the shine of tin roofed buildings can be seen in a vast and infinite landscape.  Fissures give way to rounded terraces all in shades of brown.  At midday the clouds create the only shadows.

The valleys are becoming wider, flanked by steep escarpments, yet still the fields climb to all but the most jagged peaks. Gondar lies in a huge flat depression where green and gold merge with the brown.

Gondar to Addis Ababa, 1 hr 5 mins.

gonder viewThe settlements on the plain are close together. Each plot surrounded by a green ‘hedge’ and clusters of trees – more or less like chequer boards.

We are now crossing Lake Tana, or at least, flying along it’s Eastern shore where a long rectangular strip of intense green suggests irrigation.

A distant brown haze meeting blue sky with strips of cloud obscures the view beyond a well populated gentler area.  Interesting to think it takes an hour to fly from Bristol to Edinburgh –  so this bit of Ethiopia represents a large chunk of England.  Altogether it is the size of France, Germany , Britain and Poland put together.

Across an upland plateau where every now and then the land drops into a steep sided gorge, a narrow river cuts its way .  Its rising ground and the mountains appear to have been sliced through horizontally.

Illogical gorges pierce into the tops creating knurled fingers of rock.  The gorges are large enough to contain more jagged, flat topped hills eroded away from the main landmass.

Cotton wool clouds float below in strangely regular formations. Upon reaching Addis Ababa we again met up with Aureol and Jan over lunch, relented and had a fresh salad was much enjoyed.

They had just returned from a less than satisfactory trip to the South. They were not happy with their guide who was perfectly nice but not interesting. They warned us of atrocious roads and poor accommodation.  We’ll see.

We left the Global at 4 am for the flight to Dire Dawa – the nearest airport to HARAR – nice sign on the way out ‘Dire Health Clinic’!

Harar City

Harar is an ancient walled town with five gates, mainly Muslim.  There is only one road which is navigable by motorized vehicles through the old centre, otherwise its narrow alleys, high walls and really quite enchanting.

Eskinder came with us on this leg as he sometimes likes to check on guides and accommodation.  He took us to a little place outside the walls for lunch.  There was the largest grasshopper I’ve ever seen sitting on a branch – all of 4” long.

We are staying in the guest house of a Muslim family – the Rowda – named after the matriarch who has just returned from a trip to Mecca.  This character building is 200 or 300 hundred years old and typical of its type.

A courtyard house which one enters through carved wooden doors to a reception area devoid of furniture but with carpet covered platforms of various low heights and many satin cushions.

There is a sort of hierarchy for sitting traditionally, with the men on the highest platform, descending inbaskets at harar order of rank or age.

The walls are adorned with every kind of pot, pan, basket and container.

Many brilliantly painted a little reminiscent of  English barge painting.  Some are woven in died colored hemp or similar, others are black.

Haille Selassie was born here and also spent his honeymoon here in a rather grand courtyard house which is now a museum.

This house was built by Indians and the fretwork wooden screen bears witness to this.

Jenny shares her Ethiopian experience on the next part of this article.

Click here for the 1st part of this story

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