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Review: Ethiopia - Off-road tours

Escorted Tour - Walking

Ethiopia

Northern Ethiopia through a shattered windscreen

  • By SilverTraveller KateN

    2 reviews

  • February 2009
  • Friend(s)

211 people found this review helpful

‘Quick, over here, madams,’ hissed our guide. ‘A wedding is just now coming. I think they will allow.’ The two madams (one Australian, one English, long-time friends and old enough to be his grandmothers) had learned not to hang about. Wincing gamely over yet more rough, hot, barren ground to an arch in the hewn rock wall we peered down a passage that smelt like a catacomb. A shaft of sunlight in the inner courtyard caught flashes of white robes and red silk umbrellas, and there was drumming and the tinkling of sistra. Lalibela, one of Ethiopia’s most famous religious sites, was coming to life before our eyes.

Every tour worthy of the name needs a guide. Even with lots of preparation, can you really be sure that on your own you’d get the best experiences? For this leg of our tour of the Ethiopian Highlands, ours was called Meky, and without him we would have missed the newly-weds, not to mention a trip to ‘Hell’ and back, and a surreal glimpse straight back into the early years of Christianity. We might also have missed praying (of the omigod type) for a miraculous calming of the waves on Lake Tana, so deceptively millpond-ish when we’d hired the boat, and the chance to squint down the sights of a Kalashnikov. You just can’t do that sort of thing in a crowd. Picking up a local tour in Addis is much more fun.

The wedding party emerging from the dark interior of Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour) clapped and sang joyously, all in spotless white against the near purple volcanic backdrop of Ethiopia’s largest rock-hewn church, and not one was taking pictures on a mobile phone.

Extra early next morning – ‘It is a day of Blessed Mariam’ – Meky dragged us up the hill to Bet Giorgis, the most photogenic of this unique clutch of 13th century UNESCO-protected wonders. A deep buzz of chanting led us to a cleft in the rock walls so narrow that we had to peep in one at a time. We’d caught the end of an all-night vigil for one of the Virgin’s many feast days. Possibly a temple maiden herself, Mary would surely have felt at home in this tiny, holy hole crammed with dozens of leaf-thin priests swaying on their prayer sticks, half dreaming from the fug of incense, candle smoke and hunger.

The ‘descent into Hell’ outside another of the churches was another biblical fix – a pitch-dark, 33-metre-long tunnel that ‘resurrected’ us gasping into yet another rocky icon-hung interior.

And so on to a stormy crossing to reach Lake Tana’s island churches (two lifejackets between three of us), where the gorgeous murals had got it just right in a lovely medieval way, with ‘Christ Calming the Waters of Galilee’ on what was clearly the lake outside. ‘No high laughing’, warned a notice.

The broken windscreen on the way to the Gelada Baboons of the Simien Mountains was nothing really. We chewed a few leaves of q’at reflectively by the roadside, and it was there that an ancient ranger let me hold his Kalashnikov. We’d seen the Blue Nile Falls; Gondar was next. Not a ‘grand tour’, but a great one.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 3 Comment(s)

  • HMJ
    over 6 years ago
    I loved reading this as we're off to Ethiopia for four weeks at Christmas. Now I can't wait!
  • KateN
    over 6 years ago
    Thanks for your kind words, Geoff, and glad you enjoyed it. What would you like next? Getting ripped off by rogue Rasta in Addis, or visiting the Gelada baboons in the Simien Mountains . . .? This trip was a few years ago, but nothing much changes outside the capital, as far as I know, and Off-Road Tours Ethiopia is still delighting its clients.
  • Geoff
    over 6 years ago
    Wow this sounds like an amazing, once in a lifetime experience. You write so very evocatively about it! Please keep us updated with what happens next. I am really keen to learn more about your trip.