We were on a tour through Ethiopia soon after the summer rains, and much of the country we saw was covered in a green pointillist haze for the time being. We were in Bahar Dar, a substantial town on the edge of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. A normally wide and shallow outflow within walking distance of our lakeside hotel allowed us a view of the waters at the start of their long journey through Ethiopian gorges until debouching onto the lower lands of Sudan, at Khartoum, where our Nile joins the White Nile, already well travelled from Lake Victoria. From there the combined waters would irrigate an intermittent strip of habitation until reaching Egypt where the population crowded around the river as far as the Mediterranean.
We took a minibus for an hour or so through the farmed land around Bahar Dar to find ourselves engulfed by blustery spray from the Tississat Falls, now spectacular after the rains. An early traveller had described this roaring overflow, only to be dismissed as fabrication by another visitor, as they arrived toward the end of the dry season. It remains ephemeral, but impressive even at low water, but the clues given to us of the effects of heavy rain were unregistered, as we prepared for our onward journey.
An ageing Mercedes minibus turned up at our hotel very early in the morning and we clambered aboard, not really sure of what the journey held. Our destination was a tiny town in the Amharic speaking centre of the northern part of Ethiopia. Lalibela, we knew was a site of important pilgrimage for the indigenous Christians, drawn by the miracles of the rock-cut churches in a labyrinth of passages carved out by angels.
They had answered the prayers of the pious King Lalibela, who wished to create a new Jerusalem in this land, isolated from the rest of Christendom by terrain, the Red Sea and inimical neighbours. An ephemeral stream even played the role of the River Jordan. Our journey by bus was a last minute arrangement as visitors to Lalibela would normally fly in via small planes, Dash 6 or 10 to the gravel airstrip there. The rains had damaged the strip, and so to complete our itinerary, the road was the only option.
This road was one of several built by the Chinese at a time when their assistance was vital in modernising Ethiopia’s infrastructure, as the terrain allows for through travel only in a few areas. Some roadbuilding had gone on during the Italian Occupation during WW2, but huge chunks of the country were only reached by mule or on foot, still. Almost all the roads ran North to South, and thus limited trade and communications for most of the rural population
Anticipating a long journey we had stocked up on water in glass bottles and some soft drinks. Most people had acquired some fruit or biscuits to get through the day, as there was no information to be had on possibilities en route. All we knew was that the Chinese road avoided the difficulties of the spectacularly dissected plateau by threading along ridges and rarely descending more than a thousand feet or so. Everyone travelled with scarves wrapped around their nose and mouth against the spurts of dust that entered the vehicle at every jolt. Door and windows were kept shut, to reduce the fog, but this made it all the more stifling inside.
We thundered along gravel roads – the noise coming from the rutted and rippled track rather than our speed, which was tops 25 miles an hour most of the time. The road was largely light on traffic, with the occasional truck and trailer for which we always gave way, and nearer settlements we would see little tuktuks and microbuses crammed with people and goods going to and fro from more distant places. All the ‘towns’ were just a single street, busy but with always a lane for through traffic. At points along the way, though, and as we climbed, there were vast views opening up on our left, to the North. Valleys, themselves perhaps 2000ft deep were a small part of the much larger branching vista of landscape from the air. We were travelling at perhaps 10,000ft and the world lay before and beneath us.
We eventually came to a turning for Lalibela, down to the left. All our water was disgustingly warm and we were choked with dust, hungry and very weary from the jarring endless journey. Our descent in to the maze of landscape before us was understandably rather slow and cautious. That caution was justified after some miles when we saw a huge earthmover tumble a boulder the size of a caravan off the road just in front of us. We stopped to enquire about the road ahead, which the driver said was ok, he had just returned to clear more of the difficult debris which had crashed out of the surrounding hills during and as a result of, the late summer rains. This seemed to be a regular job, and our eyebrows raised and eyes widened when regarding the slopes towering over us. So, as dusk fell, we became the second vehicle to reach Lalibela that autumn, after a D9 Caterpillar.
We arrived at our hotel after another climb to the outskirts of the village and the staff poured out in effusive welcome. We had a booking, yes, and were expected, but nobody had expected us to arrive by bus. This meant some obvious problems would arise. There had been no deliveries of fuel for generators or of supplies for the markets and inhabitants, because the road was impassable.
This isolation had been encountered during the big 1983-85 Famine which launched Live Aid, as Lalibela had been a food distribution centre during that crisis; one of few places that 4 and 6 wheel drive trucks could reach in the middle of the country.
However the hotel staff rose to the task and rapidly made ready the fly-blown rooms, untouched since the last visitors. There was no electricity, but a supply of candles was rationed out, and torches dug out from luggage. Limited water was available as the pumps could not function. An unseen problem was that there was no food except pasta and tinned tomatoes, sprinkled with garlic, the staff apologetically explained, and this is what we got that evening, marvelling at having arrived in such a remote spot at all.
The following day we were to make a walking tour of the rock-cut churches in and around the village, and we found delight in the sachets of Nescafe produced from some hidden drawer. Again we were light on food, but the staff had scoured the town for all the eggs that could be bought, and scrambled them to make them stretch. I think we may have had injera, the floppy flatbread common in Ethiopia, made with a grain called teff.
We did indeed make our tour of the churches and monastery quarters, utterly undisturbed by other tourists, but hemmed in on all sides by children from 6 to 16 eager to advise us of when shoes needed to be discarded and where necessary guarding them or ferrying them around to the place they knew we would exit. Nice little earner (the only one), and though they consituted a bit of a pest, we found it impossible to see them as such, in their straitened circumstances.
Our itinerary had to be curtailed in Lalibela because we had lost two half-days as a result of the drive / fly problem. Consequently we needed to depart the following morning to reach Dessie, a major town to the East. Unfortunately, there were no eggs to be found at all the next morning, in fact, despite the efforts of the staff, there was actually nothing edible at all to buy in the market.
What we got, and were glad of, were Nescafe sachets and tea bags; no sugar or milk. Our hardships paled to insignificance compared to the residents and staff that had done everything they could from a deep sense of hospitality to strangers. If we had been aware of this difficulty we could have brought in not only food for our stay, but what might have been much needed variety to the very basic foodstuffs that were still available to the population.
St Georges church Lalibela cut deeply into the rock, including the church interior
With slightly grumbling stomachs we set off back down the hill to pass the still closed airstrip, and climb steeply back to the Chinese road. Late in the morning we found the very first possibility of something to eat; a small stall at a road junction, and I jumped out with the driver to check out the possibilities. Well, possibility, as it turned out the only thing on offer was Kollo. This turned out to be roasted barley, nutty and grittily crunchy, provided in a woven basket which sort of looked like those blackened greasy trousers you might see on a sheep shearer. Everyone gave this unexpected ‘treat’ a try, and some more than once, but it was grim fare from a very dubious source. Onward we drove until early afternoon.
At this point we arrived in a one street market which had ended, people threading away from the settlement in all directions. Our intrepid driver leapt out to seek sustenance for himself and his charges and spotted an open door and sign in Amharic, indicating food was possible. A grimy doorway led into a bare room with formica tables and an entrance to the kitchen. We were invited to seat ourselves, which we did with anticipation, feeling really rather hungry, not peckish, proper hungry. A series of deep battered metal bowls of reddish brown stew were brought and some chunks of bread – not so common in rural Ethiopia, so we were doing well. There was no other food, so we thought, ok, dig in.
After a few minutes of concentrated delight at warm and replenishing food, a woman cried “Hey Bob, look !” to me from the other end of the table, brandishing a large tooth. Moments later, someone displayed part of a jawbone from the depths of his bowl, and we looked at each other for a few seconds, then shrugged and carried on or left, depending on taste. Our sheep’s heed stew caused no ill effects, and everyone saw it as something of a step up from kollo, or nothing. We drove on towards Dessie, with perhaps a fresh view of what getting by meant in Ethiopia.
Dusk was approaching as we came to the outskirts of Dessie, where we had a couple of final shocks. The most irritating was that several people complained to me about electric tingles when in the shower, I wasn’t about to start delving into questionalbe wiring, so I organised folk to swap around facilities with those who had no buzz.
The other shock, perhaps, inevitable, we encountered en route into Dessie when we saw compounds full of white painted trucks in many ranks, variously liveried in Red Cross, UN, World Food Programme markings. A wistful silence fell over the group as we passed those trucks, I thought of the line “they also serve who only stand and wait”. At the time it was clear that there will always be a next time, and keeping the trucks here and ready was cheaper than getting them out and back in again.
We were glad of all we had.
A very grateful
Bob Cranwell Amateur Emigrant
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