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Journey to a timeless land

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Miranda Eeles discovers ancient religious sites and dazzling mountain scenery on a hiking holiday in Ethiopia


I am sat on a stone wall. It is 5am and still dark. Around me are hundreds of Ethiopians, some waiting patiently on tiered seats, others perched on branches of trees or wrapped around makeshift wooden scaffolding. Below, around the edge of King Fasilides' bathing pool, dozens of priests in embroidered white robes say prayers, with crosses held closely against their chests. Everyone is waiting for the water in the pool to be blessed. As the moment arrives, there's a communal cry and the crowd, feverish with excitement, surges forward. A line of men break through, rip of their clothes and jump in, symbolically renewing their baptism vows.

 

This is Epiphany, Ethiopian style. My partner and I were in Gondar, the place to be during the festival of Timcat when thousands of pilgrims flock to the city to attend three days of celebrations. Gondar is also famous for an impressive set of 17th-century castles, located in a walled royal enclosure that was bombed by Britain during World War Two when Germany occupied parts of the country.

 

cultural heritage

 

Ethiopia is an extraordinary country. Many people still associate it with poverty and famine, owing to the harrowing TV news reports from 1984 and 2000. In reality, it's a diverse and fertile land, rich in cultural and religious heritage and a history that spans thousands of years.

 

Ethiopians rarely waste an opportunity to tell you that they have never been colonised, have their own calendar (it's currently 2005 here), that the Queen of Sheba was Ethiopian and that Haile Selassie, emperor from 1930-1975, was a descendent of the Jewish King Solomon. Whatever you choose to believe, Ethiopia never ceases to surprise. And the more you probe beneath the surface, the more you realise that there is infinitely more to discover about the country where the 3.2-million-year-old human skeleton, known as Lucy, was discovered in 1974.

 

One of the first challenges we faced when planning our trip was deciding where to go. From the monasteries and waterfalls around Lake Tana in the north-west and the lush forests and lakes of the Rift Valley in the south, to the sculpted sandstone rock faces and green valleys of Tigrai and the lava lakes and psychedelic geysers of the Danikil Depression, you could spend months here. In the end, we opted for a combination of hiking, history and culture, spending most of the time north of the capital, Addis Ababa.

 

Our first hike was in the Agame mountains in Tigrai, near the border with Eritrea. Organised by TESFA Tours, which works with local communities to map your route, arrange transport, food and accommodation, the trek took us through farmed valleys and villages, along dried-up riverbeds and across fields dotted with cactus pear. Distinctive red sandstone mountains reared up on either side of us.

 

One of the advantages of using TESFA is that it gives you access to rural communities that you would rarely experience as an independent traveller. Our guide, Birhan, was a charming 22-year-old graduate in environmental tourism. She was the only female guide in the company and often attracted intense curiosity from the community. At one guesthouse, she was asked why she wasn't married, why she didn't have children and how she coped with spending her days with foreigners. She brushed off her inquisitors with jokes about wanting to do more important things than marriage and procreation, which left them shaking their heads in disbelief. That night, as if to tempt fate, they produced a drum and sang old Tigrai love songs while we danced around the room in our merino wool tops and fleeces.

 

social enterprise

 

The following morning, with the sun providing welcome warmth after a chilly night, we were served a breakfast of freshly baked bread, melted honey, scrambled eggs and a thermos of strong black Ethiopian coffee.

 

After five days of hiking, we were eager for a hot shower so we treated ourselves to two nights in Agoro Lodge, a recently opened hotel that runs as a social development enterprise on the outskirts of Adigrat, one of the largest towns in Tigrai. Set up by the Spanish NGO Manos Unidas, it supports different projects involving socially vulnerable groups and provides first-class accommodation and food.

 

Our time at the lodge coincided with Ethiopian Christmas on January 7. While locals went to church, visited friends and families, took part in coffee ceremonies and feasted on mutton and goat, we rented a car, driver and guide and visited the rock-hewn churches of Teka Tesfai.

 

Like much of Ethiopia's medieval and ancient heritage, there are no official dates for when the churches were built. Locals say they date from as early as the eighth century but our guide said it was more likely to be between the ninth or 10th centuries. Two priests in the largest of the three churches, Medhane Alem Adi Kasho, showed us the beautifully patterned roof by the light of a candle on a pole and a pile of large religious tomes, with pages made of animal skin and written in the ancient script, Ge'ez.

 

underground churches

 

Our second hike was in the Simien Mountains, one of Africa's largest mountain ranges and the country's most popular trekking destination. We set off from Debark, which acts as a base for hikers, with a scout, guide and mules, climbing up through fields and woods to walk along cliffs and escarpments, some of which plunged a kilometre to the valley floor. Around us were deep gorges, cascading waterfalls and peaks towering over hundreds of pinnacles and buttresses, eroded over millennia into weird shapes and sizes. Gelada baboons foraged in the undergrowth; other endemic species we saw were the Walia Ibex, a type of mountain goat, and a rare glimpse of an Ethiopian wolf.

 

Our final destination was Lalibela, a town perched high in the Lasta Mountains and famous for its rock-hewn churches, now a UNESCO world-heritage site. Built during the reign of King Lalibela in the 12th century, the churches became the centre of Christian pilgrimage after Muslim conquests made it impossible for Christians to travel to Jerusalem. All the churches are underground, hewn out of monolithic blocks of rock with chiselled-out windows, doors, columns and roofs. They are ringed by trenches and courtyards and connected to each other by underground passages, a sort of subterranean religious village. One of the churches, Bet Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world, stands nearly 12 metres tall and covers an area of nearly 800 square metres.

 

Nothing prepares you for what Ethiopia has to offer. Whether is it witnessing Epiphany by King Fasilides' pool or sipping a whisky with locals around an open fire at the Ben Ababa restaurant in Lalibela, this is a land of surprises, intrigue and charm, and certainly one to whicb I will return.

WAY TO GO

For personalised safari and cultural tours to Ethiopia, try Red Jackal, which operates all over the country, including the remote Omo Valley. Tel. +251 111 559915 / http://redjackal.net

 

Rainbow Tours offers a 13-day group tour to visit the festival of Timket, a celebration of the baptism of Christ. The tour includes visits to Bahir Dar, the Blue Nile Falls, Gondar and the churches of Lalibela.

Tel. 020 3504 1774 or visit www.rainbowtours.co.uk

 

Wildlife Worldwide offers tours to the Awash National Park, the Bale Mountains, Lakes Langaro, Abijatta and Shalla and the Simien Mountains, all with a focus on bird and animal life. Tel. 0845 130 6982 / www.wildlifeworldwide.com/discover/ethiopia

 

For a journey through Ethiopia's vast array of wildlife, cultures and landscapes, try Ace Cultural Tours. The tour begins at the rocky north-eastern tip and continues through the landscape surrounding Harar, finishing with the Bale mountains and the Sanetti Plateau. Tel. 01223 841055 / www.aceculturaltours.co.uk

 

Ethiopian Airlines runs daily flights to Addis Ababa from London Heathrow, excluding Tuesdays; visit www.ethopianairlines.com

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