Dan MacCarthy visits Ethiopia for some wondrous trekking in the Wollo Highlands and takes time to visit a UNESCO world heritage site of rock-hewn churches

“Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear,

Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.”

So said Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And if this country excited the bard’s interest in the 16th century it is not surprising that the land of the Queen of Sheba and Haile Selassie still sends a tingle up the spine.

A rich jewel? Gaze at the White Nile which has carved a two kilometre-deep valley through the heart of the country for over 100km.

Beauty too rich? Watch the lammergeier, or bearded vulture, drift up a cliff face on a thermal and marvel at the endless variety of nature.

And more and more of same.

Yes, of course there are troubles too. Another looming famine in the far north threatens catastrophe again, like the famine of the 1980s that provoked Live Aid.

There are also troubles in the Oromia region with many civilian deaths over a perceived land-grabbing centrist state authority.

Africa Direct trekkers walking through fields of barley
Africa Direct trekkers walking through fields of barley

However, the sheer size of this country means there are many regions that are trouble-free and crying out to be visited. A superb new road is being built by Chinese investors from Addis Ababa to Lalibela in the north. Super material for a long-distance cycle were you so minded. This Irish trekking group fetch up an inauspicious part of Lake Tana in the north of Ethiopia for a week’s trekking: Dubliners, Corkonians and a Sligonian, part of an excursion with Africa Aid which is rebuilding schools.

At the lakeside crowds of pelicans throng the rushes. Fishermen haul in their nets to their papyrus boats. On the shore a wedding party passes by in colorful garb. It is an idyllic place. The lake narrows in the south-western arc, and draws you on as if enticing you to explore its waters.

And if you succumbed to temptation and followed this, by now, river to where it meets the sea, that sea would be the Mediterranean and the river, the mighty Nile. From Lake Tana it is the Blue Nile and a few hundred kilometres upstream in Sudan it is joined by the White Nile where both then drop their prefix. It then continues its journey through Sudan and Egypt before discharging into the Mediterranean 6,853km later.

Accommodation in huts called tukuls offered by Tesfa tours where Africa Direct hikers stayed on day one
Accommodation in huts called tukuls offered by Tesfa tours where Africa Direct hikers stayed on day one

Lake Tana has over 30 islands many of which contain monasteries dating from the 14th centuries from the Coptic Christian tradition.

These were built on earlier monasteries — contemporaries of the Irish monasteries built before the 10th century in places like Skellig Michael and Scattery Island where the monks sought out the edge of the known world to be closer to god.

Nowadays, sullen priests stand watch over the monasteries which in some cases house ancient bibles and paintings. Accessing these islands is by ferry from the lake-side city of Bahir Dar, itself an 11-hour bus trip from the capital Addis Ababa. The trip to the source of the Nile and the monasteries is but a detour on the main purpose of this trip to Ethiopia — a six-day hike in the Wollo Highlands.

As detours go it is pretty extraordinary. And if that is a starter for getting acquainted with this magnificent country of the Queen of Sheba, Haile Selaisse, and for a while the fastest man on the planet over 5,000m, Haile Gebrselaisse, then the main course has a lot to live up to. It lives up to it.

Ethiopia is proud of being the only African country never to have been conquered in the ‘great’ age of colonialism. The Italians had a go twice and were repulsed twice. They left behind a partly miscegenated race whose beauty is widely reported.

In the 1960s, Lismore, Co Waterford writer Dervla Murphy travelled these remote lands in the company of her mule. Her resulting travel book In Ethiopia with a Mule is up there with the greats of travel writing. For anyone wanting to get a taste of the country without actually travelling there, this is where to start.

The 12th century St George’s Church, Lalibela, carved from volcanic rock
The 12th century St George’s Church, Lalibela, carved from volcanic rock

Not a lot would appear to have changed since then. Yes, the locals have their mobile phones, but most are dressed in very shabby clothing in contrast to the fancy downtown shopping centres of the capital city.

Most of the back-breaking work in the fields is still carried out by women. And the infrastructure is still fairly limited, though Chinese roadbuilding is addressing that issue.

Outside the hotel in Bahir Dar the bus awaits to bring us a further four-hour trip to to the start of the hike. We will spend the next week trekking through the exceptionally beautiful uplands of Ethiopia staying in purpose-built tukul huts.

Africadirect hooked up with Tesfa Tours to provide the trek and guides as a means of creating local employment for the extensive local population. Our bus pulls in to the side of the road and we are warmly greeted by villagers and a ‘manager’. Our bags are loaded onto diminutive donkeys and we take a short walk through barley fields to have lunch of a spongy bread called injera and a delicious lentil stew, washed down with some freshly ground coffee. We get our first sight of the famous gelada baboons here which scamper up and down the cliff face attempting to raid the grain crops.

After lunch, a three-hour trek across farmland at the edge of a 3,000m plateau awaits. The views down into the valley are magnificent — with patchwork fields, terraces of crops and here and there, church roofs painted in the green, yellow and red of the Ethiopian flag.

Our guide, ex-military man Addisu, is incredibly informative on geology, Ethiopian history and the abundant flora and fauna — here a hyrax, there a lammergeyer sweeping up on the thermals.

Another huge welcome awaits us at out first tukul accommodation of the night — perched right at the edge of the cliff. Just be careful if you get a call of nature during the night, for there is no electric light to guide you. We are treated to a fine meal followed by some folk singing.

Village festival in Wollo Highlands
Village festival in Wollo Highlands

Night falls in five minutes and the previously warm day is replaced by a chilly night as the cold winds howl up from the valley floor. Snuggled under a mountain of woolly blankets, you couldn’t care less.

Each day’s trek under a hot sun follows a largely similar pattern — breakfast of oranges, coffee and pancakes; load up the donkeys and off we go. Much of the walking is through farmland where young children sprint over just to shake hands with the ferengi — foreigners.

The landscape is magnificent - as our path winds around escarpments, past acacia groves and the odd school.

We visit a church being carved out of the solid rock — an Ethiopian tradition that had its origins at the Uneseco World Heritage Site at Lalibela which we visit at the end of the trek.

Our familiarity with our surroundings is gradually improving. In one village, our host Melkam and her 10-year-old daughter Dilly-Dill teach us to count to 10 in Amharic: and, hulet, sost, arat, amist, sedist, sebat, simint, zetegn, asir. We all receive an Ethiopian name for our trip — Bethlehem, Menelik, Se Si.

By now, well and truly integrated, it is time to head home and a short flight to Addis Ababa. An incredible country.


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