Africa's spiritual heartland of Ethiopia will lift your soul

  • Landlocked Ethiopia is twice the size of Spain with a population of 95 million and 20,000 Britons visited last year
  • Ethiopia has a spectacular landscape, a rich culture and archaeological sites as spellbinding as Egypt’s offerings
  • See the Lalibela market which has salt carried by camels from the Danakil Desert and dark honeycombs for sale

Hens are the only females allowed into the monastery of Debre Damo. We gaze at the loaf-shaped lump of rock that rises out of a biblical landscape in the region of Tigray.

Isolated and self-sufficient, 150 monks live on this inaccessible platform. Visitors (male only) are pulled up the sheer sides by rope to the sixth-century dwelling.

Mildly disappointed at being thwarted by gender, we visit Daniel Korkor instead, another remote and ancient church. 

Higher calling: A Christian church in rocky Northern Ethiopia stands out against the rocky landscape with its bright colours

Higher calling: A Christian church in rocky Northern Ethiopia stands out against the rocky landscape with its bright colours

Nerves of steel are required as I edge along a ledge with a paralysing precipice and a 1,000 ft drop.

Carved deep into the rock, it’s worth the two-hour slog up the mountainside. We find exquisite frescos painted turquoise, ochre and burnt sienna, colours of the sky and landscape.

The resident priest, aged 84, looks remarkably young, a testament to a lifetime of fasting, he claims.

No wonder 20,000 Britons visited Ethiopia last year. In this astonishingly beautiful country, we are welcomed everywhere.

After 3,000 years of feudalism, followed by 17 years of communism and civil war, leaders describe their 19-year-old democracy as a ‘work in progress’.

For many, Ethiopia conjures up images of Bob Geldof, famine and Haile Selassie — Ethiopia’s 225th and last Emperor, deposed in 1974 by the brutal Derg regime.

Ethiopia has many layers, a spectacular landscape, a rich culture and archaeological sites as spellbinding as Egypt’s.

We discover some excellent Italian restaurants, too, a legacy from a brief (and unsuccessful) invasion by Mussolini.

We opt for a 17-day tailor-made tour with Ethiopian Quadrants visiting World Heritage sites. It starts in Addis Ababa in the Sheraton hotel.

Colour artwork on display inside a Tigray region cathedral in Ethiopia. The landlocked country is twice the size of Spain with a population of 95 million

Colour artwork on display inside a Tigray region cathedral in Ethiopia. The landlocked country is twice the size of Spain with a population of 95 million

With its white roses and purple jacaranda, it’s a stark contrast to the corrugated shacks just a street away.

The locals are keen to practise their English. ‘Where are you from? Do you like our country? Can we have your email?’

We take four internal flights. Landlocked Ethiopia, twice the size of Spain with a population of 95 million, is surrounded by some of the most toxic countries in the world — Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan — so security is tight.

In between, we travel by minibus with our delightful guide Getaw. The dusty roads are wondrous. We bump and rattle through stupendous scenery: sawn-off mountains and vast plains fall away with pinnacles of contorted rock formations.

Everyone walks great distances to school or the market. The occasional dead donkey or abandoned, skeletal horse by the side of the road makes me wince. Getaw apologises: ‘Animals are valuable, but vets are few.’

North of Addis is fabled Lalibela: legend says angels helped build the warren of 12th-century churches. Marvel at the precision of vast, subterranean, monolithic buildings, carved out of solid rock

North of Addis is fabled Lalibela: legend says angels helped build the warren of 12th-century churches. Marvel at the precision of vast, subterranean, monolithic buildings, carved out of solid rock

Lalibela market is bewitching: salt carried by camels from the Danakil Desert, dark honeycombs and mounds of mismatched shoes for sale. The locals dress like pearly kings and queens, with buttons sewn onto clothes

Lalibela market is bewitching: salt carried by camels from the Danakil Desert, dark honeycombs and mounds of mismatched shoes for sale. The locals dress like pearly kings and queens, with buttons sewn onto clothes

North of Addis is fabled Lalibela: legend says angels helped build the warren of 12th-century churches. 

We marvel at the precision of these vast, subterranean, monolithic buildings, carved out of solid rock. For centuries, pilgrims have come to die at the holy site.

Corpses once filled the deep trenches that link the churches. Skeletons still inhabit the numerous caves — an odd foot pokes out here and there.

Lalibela market is bewitching: salt carried by camels from the Danakil Desert, dark honeycombs and mounds of mismatched shoes for sale.

The locals dress like pearly kings and queens, with buttons sewn onto clothes.

Among the multitude of animals standing in the hot sun, a boy whispers reassuringly to his goats, waiting for a buyer. 

Another highlight is a three-day trek along an escarpment in western Meket. The ground falls away abruptly and we look down on a patchwork of farmland, cultivated by hand and oxen.

Visit Bishangari on the pinky-mauve Lake Langano (pictured) in the Rift Valley and wake to a morning chorus from 400 species of birds

Visit Bishangari on the pinky-mauve Lake Langano (pictured) in the Rift Valley and wake to a morning chorus from 400 species of birds

Donkeys carry our bare essentials. We stop at a school, where children recite their alphabet in English and Amharic, the local language. In return, we sing nursery rhymes.

We stay in mud huts, run by the community and eat tasty injera, the staple dish of fermented pancake, made from teff, an indigenous grain, eaten with spicy vegetables. 

We wash using a bucket and go to bed by candlelight. Despite wandering hyenas, we sleep soundly with our door wide open to a starry sky.

Bishangari is our last stop, on the pinky-mauve Lake Langano in the Rift Valley. The morning chorus from 400 species of birds wakes us. 

Fishermen empty nets encircled by hungry dogs while children chew raw fish heads. They ask us to take photos and laugh at their images.

Three brothers washing in the lake are entranced by our binoculars. The youngest finally manages to focus not on the rare mohican-haired bird Ruspoli’s turaco, but on some girls bathing in the distance.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Ethiopian Quadrants (ethiopianquadrants.com, 00251 11 5157990) offers 17-night historic tours from £2,601 pp or ten-night tours from £2,140 pp, based on groups of six travelling. 

Direct flights to Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines from £576 pp (ethiopianairlines.com, 0208 987 7000). Four domestic flights cost an additional £162 pp. 

 

 

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About Văn Khang Nguyễn

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