Travel: Manchán Magan recounts an unforgettable experience with community tourism in Ethiopia

A dozen years after he hiked along the Rift, Manchán Magan remembers the most perfect holiday he has ever had
Travel: Manchán Magan recounts an unforgettable experience with community tourism in Ethiopia

Writer Manchán Magan recounts an unforgettable experience with community tourism in Ethiopia. Pictures: Florian Masson

In the course of 20 years of travel journalism the most impactful article I ever wrote was one about Ethiopia. It began with the words “I may have, inadvertently, unearthed the perfect holiday — affordable, unforgettable and in one of the most awesome, exotic and unexplored parts of the world. A holiday that will actually enrich your life, and that you may very likely look back upon from your deathbed with a smile.”

As an opening gambit, it was almost embarrassingly effusive, but I was certain at the time that the holiday was one of a kind, and in the years since it’s been beyond compare in terms of natural beauty, cultural richness and the sheer uniqueness of the whole experience.

It was a walking holiday along the spectacular basalt escarpments of the Ethiopian highlands around Lalibela, one of the world’s most astounding sacred locations, set in a mountain range along the Great Rift Valley where the Blue Nile rises. The holiday involved a series of gentle hikes through the hills, staying with local communities at night in clean, elegant traditional lodges.

I realised that readers would be wary about travelling to Africa, and most especially to Ethiopia, which Irish people equate with war and famine, and so I emphasised how safe the holiday would be, how great the food was, and how it would cost only a fraction of normal holidays, while also directly benefiting some of the poorest people on earth in a provable, tangible way.

I used every journalistic device I had in the hopes of convincing readers to take a chance, and it worked. In the 12 years since I wrote the piece I’ve had more positive feedback about it than for anything else I’ve written. The same holiday is still available today and run by a philanthropic “community tourism” offshoot of the original TESFA organisation (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives).

And I still get emails from grateful readers.

So, what exactly does it entail? You start out at either the town of Lalibela or Bahir Dar, or Gondar, depending on how you wish to travel north from the capital, Addis Ababa. All are spectacular places and you’ll want to spend a few days exploring them before you arrange to get dropped at the trailhead with your guide, where porters from the community will be waiting with donkeys. And, from there you simply set off walking 8km along a tree-lined path up towards the escarpment, through a pastoral landscape of grain fields, terraced vegetable plots and soaring stony upland meadows, with clusters of mud and thatch farms here and there. 

It’s a magical land of olive groves, shepherd boys and women scrubbing cloths at acacia-lined streams. You’ll encounter hidden Orthodox churches made from stone and wood, and processions of garlanded priests with gold-tasselled sun umbrellas.

Although the land looks arid, it’s remarkably bountiful and everywhere there are men ploughing with oxen and wooden ploughs and winnowing with forks cut from tree branches.

The trail is easy and the pace is slow, so you will feel a nice fatigue rather than exhaustion at the end of the first day, and the beauty of your overnight location will soon revive you. It’s right on the edge of the escarpment, with mountains running on to the ends of the earth and surging outcrops of hexagonal basalt columns rising up beneath you. The smoke from cooking fires is all that hints at possible habitation down below. 

Above you are a profusion of auger buzzards, falcons, and eagles soaring on the thermals. You are served tea and a freshly-baked snack as you take in the view. Then, while dinner is cooking you head out to an over-hanging rock-ledge for a sunset beer, as Gelada baboons scramble along the cliff face beneath you. Dinner is served around an open fire in one of the traditional circular, stone-walled, thatched-roof tukuls, and since there is no electricity you go to sleep early.

The days continue more or less like this — you can trek for between one and six nights — the landscape and people becoming ever more alluring the deeper you enter the region. Each trek between the various camps is beautiful for its own reason, but in my memory, the most spectacular and challenging of all was the walk up into the remote highland sanctuary of Abuna Yoseph. This route is long and requires stamina. It leads you up through a forest of giant heather to a community-run camp at 3,500 metres and onwards the next day over a highland plateau farmed by resilient mountain people, to a 4,300-metre peak in an Afro-Alpine ecosystem of giant Lobelias (massive cabbage-like trees) and rare Ethiopian wolves.

Hopefully, it’s now clearer why so many readers were lured to try out the holiday and enjoyed it so much. It’s remarkable that the trip is still available after 12 years, especially since it’s a philanthropic, community-run venture, and such things are normally hard to maintain long-term. TESFA was initially set up by an Englishman, Mark Chapman, who realised that since there were no tarred roads or any other type of infrastructure in the area, the usual rich white investors from South Africa or Europe could not be enticed in, and this provided an ideal opportunity to develop a genuine network of community tourism sites in which the locals themselves could benefit in a tangible way, rather than having all the profits siphoned out to wealthy investors overseas.

He hiked out to what he considered was the most beautiful spot in the entire region, a fertile meadow right at the edge of a plummeting black basalt escarpment, and explained to the local elders that if they built a few of their traditional tukuls he would bring tourists to them and he’d give them 55% of what the tourists paid, while 25% went to the local guides with the remaining 20% being used to cover marketing and booking costs. They were initially sceptical, wondering where the catch was, but they grudgingly agreed, and in 2003 the first lodges were built on the very edge of a sheer precipice at Mequat Mariam overlooking a tawny-coloured stretch of undulating paradise.

By the time I visited six years later, I was able to see the grain store and school buildings built by the community with the funds they had received. By then, TESFA had an office in Addis Ababa and were setting up other trails throughout Ethiopia.

The organisation has continued to grow with remarkable stability ever since and with valuable support funding from the Irish government through Irish Aid. Some internal challenges led Chapman to set up an offshoot, Tesfa Tours, in 2010, but the holiday is still the same.

In 2019 I was all set to write a follow-up article focusing on some new destinations that Tesfa Tours were offering, but then everything changed. The world seemed to wake up to the fact that the Earth was now the warmest it’d been in 120,000 years, and that concentrations of carbon dioxide were the highest they’d been in millions of years. I realised it was no longer justifiable to be promoting foreign holidays, even ones that do as much tangible good for the local community.

Reluctantly, I cancelled my trip and gradually began to accept the new reality that my holidays would have to be taken by train from now on. Ethiopia would remain a beautiful memory for me until such time as electric planes are developed that can affordably fly that far.

As for what other people should do, it’s not for me to say. I definitely am still passionate about the ability of community tourism to bring great benefits to disadvantaged areas. Perhaps people need to take fewer journeys, but for longer and make them more impactful. Ethiopia has been struck by Covid as badly as anywhere in Africa, with most infections confined to the capital. The situation is compounded by war in the northern province of Tigray, but despite these setbacks, Tesfa Tours is still continuing to offer hikes in the mountains and Ethiopian Airlines is still operating flights direct from Dublin.

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