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A Steep Climb to Heaven


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When we got into the car in Axum, we were brazing ourselves for a bumpy ride through nothingness on our way to Gheralta. Nothing had prepared us for the scenery along the dirt road. The road meanders between cliffs and peaks of the most spectacular shapes which rise up from the plain, coloured red by the red sand. The mountains are flat on top, as if someone had taken an iron to even out any extremities. Why have we not heard of this? we think. Why are we the only tourists here?  It's the kind of scenery we  would expect to see in the South West US (without having been there), but not in Ethiopia. The big difference from the US, even from China and India, is that there is no tourist infrastructure here. Nobody's selling ice cream or soft drinks or tacky souvenirs at the most beautiful viewpoints. There is nothing. Only land, farmers and us in our car. 

Along the road between Axum and Gheralta Lodge

The land looks almost barren at times. There are small rocks everywhere and water appears scarce. Still, every plot of land is claimed and farmed. We see the same scene here as elsewhere in Ethiopia: men with their cows and plough, tending to their small patch of land. Children looking after cattle and goats. We are reminded that the school holidays back home traditionally were timed so children could help with the harvest; it was not a time for leisure but for physical labour. Here, children are still put to work as soon as they can be of any use.  If they are not guarding the life stock, they are collecting fire wood or water. We see them everywhere along the road, working, being useful. If they can, they combine it with play. A group of boys sit on the road playing marbles with their respective groups of goats lurking nearby. Our driver honks his horn to make them leave the road, which they do, quickly.

Despite their duties, the children always stop and come closer to the road to look at the car when they hear it approaching. When we are close, they smile and start waiving eagerly. We wave and smile back. At one point, some children appear to throw rocks towards the car, but none come close and it is only this once. From the 30 seconds we've got to observe passers-by, from the car, most of them seem happy.

This is proper countryside, and we think that life here must be tough. We see people with big white bags  marked with "USAID" and outside the small and few villages we pass, there are signs with the USAID logo, telling us that the area is subject to development aid.

After around 3.5 hours we arrive in Hawzen, the village next to our lodge. It's a proper backwater but apparently with an old history. A single dirt road street, lined by a mix of sheds and simple buildings. We pass a huge group of people, standing around a truck, which seems to be the source of the USAID bags. We will come back to that later.

Hawzien. Not a happening place

Gheralta Lodge is the kind of place you dream of when backpacking. It's a beautiful and clean lodge in an amazing setting and, not to forget, far away from any kind of morning prayers that will wake you up early in the morning. The place is run by Italians, who were in their homeland for the summer when we were there. Luckily they had left the most important thing behind - the knowledge of cooking good pasta. We arrived just in time for lunch and the pasta was so good, nothing like the overcooked stuff we have had in the last three or for countries we have travelled in. 

Gheralta Lodge

After lunch we went for a walk to have a closer look at Hawzien. Our first impression turned out to be correct. There is not much of interest in the town itself, it is the surroundings that are spectacular. We nonetheless continued our walk, curious about the crowds of people we had driven past earlier. We could see from afar that there still were lots of people there and on the way there we met people carrying white bags in their arms, on their heads and on carts. When we got there, a truck with people handing out the bags was still there. We were closer to the "source" but still didn't have any answers. Why here and why now? Do the people here really need bags of wheat? We had the same day been driving through endless stretches of farmed land and harvest is approaching. Still there were endless rows for USAID bags there. A little girl came up, curious. Through signals we asked if she wanted to be in a photo. She seemed to find the idea exhilarating and scary and laughed with delight when we showed her the photo. This in turn attracted some older girls who also wanted a photo. Sensing that we were getting more and more attention from the large crowd, we quickly decided to get out of there, otherwise we would never end taking photos.

Girls in Hawzien

Wheat deliveries

The goods

People waiting

Another church, actually, the best one

It won't come as a surprise to anyone that the Tigray region we were in is famous for - its churches. They are unique for several reasons. They are some of the oldest in the Ethiopia, though the exact age is difficult to determine. The local legends speak of 4th century AD, but nobody knows for sure. Many of them were "discovered", i.e.Westerners have been taken to them by locals, as recently as the 1960s and 70s. There are many of them in the Gheralta region, even within the vicinity of our lodge.

We started chatting to two American guys, John and Joe, staying in the same lodge. The lodge's price for a car with a driver was quite steep and we were interested to see whether they had similar plans to ours. The next morning they had organised a local, cheaper car and offered us to come along - they were also going where we wanted to go: the Abuna Yemata Guh church.

John was visiting Joe who is working in Mekele, a town a few hours south of Gheralta. Just like John, he's a former McKinsey employee and  is managing a business - basically a poultry farm, where they hatch chickens and sell them on to farmers. These chickens have, from the Ethiopian farmer's perspective, a number of benefits: they need less feed and they lay more eggs, giving the farmers who buy them a bigger source of income. Moreover, the poultry farm itself is a source of employment in Mekele and the business is now expanding. It is a remarkable story and Joe told us about the positive response from local politicians, showing that it is possible for foreign investors to run a business in Ethiopia. It's a different and more positive type of development project (as opposed to "give us aid!") and the type of project development agencies and investment funds increasingly are encouraging and supporting. We found it massively impressive and reckoned that there is only a matter of time before Joe and team feature in The Economist.

We were driving towards the imposing mountain south of our lodge where we knew the Abuna Yemata Guh church was to be found. Considering this is set out to be one of the best churches in the region, if not the country, the non-existent signposting and terrible dirt road leading there, is remarkable. Or maybe it isn't. This country is not set out for tourists. Not yet at least. In this case, it turned out to be more of a blessing for us, as we had the place all to ourselves.

Joe, who had been several times before, had asked us if we were ok with heights, and also our guide book as well as the hotel manager had said that it's a bit of a trek and a climb to the church. We got out of the van together with the guides and fixers and as we were walking towards the mountain, the group seemed to multiply. Out of nothingness emerged more and more people who would accompany us up on the mountain, some being helpful, others not, some deserving a tip, others not.

Before we knew what awaited us!

The mountain

After a pretty steep trek we sat down on a ledge for a quick rest. Joe told us we should take off our shoes and we did, same thing we have done before entering all the other churches we've visited in Ethiopia. Expecting to turn a corner and find the church there, we stood up. Our guide then began to climb up the mountain. We looked up and took in the steep wall, indented with marks where centuries of ascents and descents of priests and their parish had left small imprints. Bare feet was not a mark of respect for the holy site but a necessity to be able to grip the cliff face on the way up. The questions about how we coped with height suddenly made much more sense. The church really was up there on the mountain and we really needed to climb to get there.

The wall

During our climb up, some of the guys who magically appeared would prove very helpful. They would point us to various grips and we slowly but steadily climbed up and at last reached the tunnel next to the church, after negotiating a 15 metre ledge on the side of the cliff, wide enough for one at a time to walk along, gripping the cliff face as we went. We all agreed that it was good that our parents couldn't see us now, first climbing up and now walking, centimetres away from the edge and the sheer drop to the plain 200 metres below. We decided that the best way to handle it was not to look down. 

One the way up

Enjoying the view and...

...gathering courage...

...before heading up there!

The climb and the view were themselves worth the excursion. The church turned out to be something extra as well with beautiful and intricate paintings covering every inch of the wall. The paintings are by far the most beautiful church paintings we have seen in Ethiopia and our guide told us that they are all original, they haven't been altered or "improved" over the years. When asking him why they built churches so high up in the first place, he mentioned a number of reasons. It is safer, as nobody except the locals will be able to find the church. Secondly, it is quiet and a good place for worship and contemplation. Thirdly, the climb up is tiring, and it is good to be a bit exhausted before praying. Fourthly and lastly, having the church up on the mountain, makes it closer to heaven.

Inside Abuna Yemata Guh

The view from the church

Time to get down

This church is still in use today and people will climb the wall be it dark, wet or both. Rather them than us.

Going back to our hotel, we were trying to digest what we had just experienced. The exercise, the fear, the fun, the beautiful church, the dramatic scenery, the craziness of it all - it was amazing and definitely the highlight of our sightseeing around Ethiopia so far! 

On the way back. The minute you stop, a crowd of kids emerges

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed some beers and more of the delicious pasta. In the evening, more people had arrived at the lodge, including a Canadian university professor specialised in African conflicts with his wife, a lawyer, and a German art conservationist, doing a project with Ethiopian students from Mekele University, training them on how to preserve church paintings. Needless to say it made for interesting conversation. Ethiopia definitely attracts interesting and friendly travellers.

The next day, we took a bus to Mekele and stayed at hotel Axum where the 1970s never ended. The following day, it was time to catch another flight back to Addis and Susanna!

Posted by Grantandhelena 06:31 Archived in Ethiopia

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We are very happy that you came down back to earth again after this breathtaking excursion. But what adventure and what impression you acquire. And that you are finding all sorts of exotic places and landmarks! Amazing! Pasta and beer seems to be on the menu in all restaurants, it may feel like a safe dish.

by Gunhild & P G

This is seriously cool! X

by Kirsty McKelvey

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