My trip started with a smug feeling – a £1 one way car hire to Heathrow. Made even better when the chap who took the car from me, waived the petrol charged. This isn’t a marketing ploy; Europcar need to move cars around the country/world, so have a semi secret page on their website when you can snag routes all over the place for just £1. Bingo.
My smug feeling faded somewhat when the automated self check in machine at T2 refused to accept my passport. I had had an inkling that this was coming after their website had also refused to check me in. I hadn’t been too bothered though as I had already picked my (window) seat and my food. An hour later I was still at the check in desk as two members of staff tried everything and anything to check me in. Finally they called Ethiopian Airlines directly who rebooked my entire ticket onto a new PNR and got me checked in. Cue me sprinting through security and through the terminal to the plane – I was last on; hungry and dying for the toilet.
8 smooth hours later, our modern Ethiopian Airlines plane slipped through the clouds over early morning Addis Ababa and gently touched down. Having got an e-visa in advance, I jumped the immigration queue and was soon through to baggage reclaim. Whilst waiting for my bags to come out, I found an ATM and took out the maximum amount of cash it would allow – a whopping £200! As always, my Revolut card worked perfectly saving me a significant amount compared to the money changers in the airport.
I was first from our small group out and waited by the hotel stand trying to pick out my fellow travellers – which was harder than you’d think as all the westerns were in outdoor gear so it was tricky to figure out who was there to hike and who was an expat or oil/mining worker. After a short wait, two of my group (a couple who oddly live just 35 mins from my home in the UK), came out and we joined our YellowWood Adventures guide who had been patiently waiting outside the window by our minibus.
After a short drive through a slowing awakening city, we pulled up at our modern hotel (complete with outdoor swimming pool) just in time for breakfast and more importantly strong coffee. Our 4th group member had flown in late the night before so was still catching up on sleep. Whilst munching on the wide selection of breakfast items that the Monarch Hotel had laid out, we briefly discussed the plans for the day and agreed to meet back in the lobby at mid day.
After grabbing a few hours sleep, I went out to sit by the pool in the mid day warmth to wait for my small group to join me. We walked a short distance to a nearby restaurant for lunch which had a mixture of western and local choices. For those who don’t know, I’m vegetarian and sadly my Google Translate app failed due to poor WIFI connection so my first meal in Ethiopia, embarrassingly, was a pizza. Luckily it was huge, tasty and washed down with local beer. I had been a little worried that it would be tricky to not eat meat in Ethiopia but I needn’t have worried as it actually turned out to be very easy.
Our minibus picked us back up and we headed off to explore the city including the biggest church in the city, a seemingly never ending museum (including Lucy – who used to be the oldest human remains) and a reasonable view of the city from the highest hill. Having not slept for nearly 37 hours, I was falling asleep on my feet, the couple had bailed and I’m fairly sure Katia, our 4th member, was in zombie mode and only going through the motions. We admitted defeat and headed back to the hotel to get some kip before dinner. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Slightly refreshed, we headed back out to a cultural restaurant. Normally I wouldn’t dream of going somewhere like this but it provided free entertainment in the form of local dancers and supposedly decent food. It was packed when we arrived and seating was extremely tight. Katia and I shared a massive plate of Injera (sourdough flatbread) covered in a wide range of different vegetable dishes. It was really tasty with some spicy parts. We finished with Tej, a local honey wine which had a proper kick to it but was so sweet that you didn’t realise until you stood up! After a sneaky cocktail on the way home, where we were the only westerners, we all crashed to get some decent sleep before the big adventure began.
Map thanks to Yellow Wood Adventures
The next morning, after another decent breakfast, we checked out of the Monarch Hotel and headed back to the airport to catch a domestic flight to Lalibela. After queuing for sometime to get the minibus through the police check point (which involved driving up on to the pavement before getting out of the bus to be searched), we entered the small and quiet domestic terminal. Luckily my PNR worked smoothly this time and my previously booked window seat was still in place. Our flight was short with a brief touch down half way where we swapped passengers but had stunning views the whole time and decent onboard coffee.
In Lalibela airport we were met by a local guide who took us the hour drive to Lalibela village where we were staying at the wonderful Mountain View Hotel. A seemingly normal hotel from the outside turned into something magical when you saw the views from all of the bedrooms – balconies looking over the mountains and valleys below with eagles circling above. We ate a quick lunch on the massive roof terrace looking out onto the same view before re-meeting our guide who was going to take us around the famous ground rock churches of Lalibela.
I’ve known about the rock churches for sometime but I didn’t know that the one famous one you see often in photos or documentaries is actually one of loads of churches cut into the rocky ground. The whole site is spread over several miles and linked by underground passages. After a bit of an issue with my DJI Mavic Mini which happened to be in my daysack, we got into the UNESCO site and started exploring.
It’s huge and I was pleasantly surprised to see barely any tourists – I had thought that of all the places in Ethiopia, this would be the place where everyone went and had expected it to be packed. Not the case. We saw more local tourists and pilgrims than western ones which was fantastic. In my opinion, UNESCO have ruined it a little bit by putting metal roofs on top of some of the churches but I can appreciate why they’ve had to do it.
The churches are all cut into the solid rock ground. They aren’t built upwards or built out of rock; they were smashed, hacked and cut into the hard solid rock. Downwards. To make that even more incredible, they built them to look like normal churches so have features on the outside to look like the wooden beams that would normally support the roof, or window frames and are built to look like European Christian churches. The craftmanship and attention to detail is fascinating. These churches are also still very active with people using them every single day with big services each Sunday and on Saint days.
After winding our way through the site including going through “Hell” (a long completely dark black passage way where you aren’t allow to use light), we finished the tour at Church of Saint George which is still fully open to the elements and the most well photographed church. It’s in the shape of a cross cut deep into the ground with bare rock all around. It’s quite mind blowing to see and is clearly still a hugely religious place for the locals.
After a quick shower, Katia and I headed to the Ben Abeba restaurant which was a crazy looking building with equally stunning mountain views to grab a beer whilst watching the sunset. We were also treated to a local wedding party turning up in full song and dance. The restaurant is run by a self-proclaimed “crazy” Scottish lady who was an absolute delight and has just featured on New Lives In The Wild presented by Ben Fogle bizarrely. I had the same dish that I had in the cultural restaurant and it was fantastic – so much better and I’d highly recommend it and the restaurant. We finished the evening sat on the hotel roof terrace with fireflies and bats flying above us.
The next morning, after breakfast on the roof in the sun, we retraced our road back to the airport and jumped on another small prop plane to Axum. This was more of a jumping off point to get us closer to the mountains but we took advantage and had a look at the 4th Century 24-metre-tall granite steles which the ancient city was famous for. I’ll be honest; it didn’t do much for me as quite frankly the local guide couldn’t tell us much about it! Not because he didn’t personally know but because no one knows – everything has been stolen from these steles centuries ago so there isn’t anything that they can figure out from the remaining items other than pure guess work. It’s interesting sure but when you live close to Stonehenge, I’m afraid it takes a little more than guess work.
The drive to Axum was fantastic. After leaving the city, we headed towards the Eritrea border getting within about 5km of it which apparently is a no go according to the UK FCO website. Oops. A lot of the locals were carrying guns at this point but no one batted an eye lid that we were there and I never felt uneasy at any point. I was more fascinated by the haystacks in trees or how farmers always had their animals in size order – lambs, donkeys and cows in that order on the road! Every single time.
After an hour or so, we started winding our way up the side of a mountain, zig zagging around hair pin and after hair pin bend as the view got more and more spectacular. After descending the mountain pass, the heavens opened and the sky turned black as we did a final dash for our eco hotel for the night, the Wukro Lodge. The reviews for this place are pretty poor to put it politely but I personally think that that is more down to westerner’s expectations than the hotel to be frank. They clearly state that the WIFI only works in the lobby (not in the rooms as lots of reviewers moan about), they clearly state that it is a buffet dinner and breakfast and not a la carte. The rooms are chalet style and massive with a stone shower (mine was plenty warm) and mosquito net covered beds.
In the morning the choice of breakfast was a little random I’ll admit but plenty of it and tasty enough. There were hornbills and parquets flying around as well which added to the eco atmosphere. Our minibus was ready to go and we bundled all our bags in and set off cross country to the foot of the Gheralta Mountains for the start of our next adventure!
After driving for about an hour, we randomly stopped near a large tree at the side of a road in the middle of pretty much nowhere – this was the start of the walk! I plastered myself in factor 50 sun cream – it wasn’t that hot but we were high up already and exposed all day. I kept myself fairly well topped up but later found out that taking my ruck sack off and on a lot was rubbing the cream off the back of my arms and they got burnt every day. Clothing wise, I was trying out the new Craghopper NosiLife Cargo shorts which turned out to be fantastic. Built in anti insect fabric, quick drying and a waterproof pocket. I got mine absolutely filthy and they still didn’t smell in the slightest. The matching short sleeve t-shirt were equally good – fast wicking, anti insect and for once didn’t bobble having a ruck sack rubbing against it all day!
Click “play” on the screen below to see our route in total – and yes the abrupt vertical drop at the end really is true!
Our hike started past a few small mud and straw farmhouses, through newly ploughed fields (using cows and ancient wooden ploughs), under trees covered in green parquets and through meadows full of butterflies. It soon started climbing higher, quickly gaining ground until we were looking back down on the flat straight road that we had driven along a few hours before.
After 2 hours we were walking along massive rock slabs on the edge of cliffs on the top of the mountain range with massive vistas to one side and below us, stretching into the distance with flat plains spreading as far as the eye could see, rock pillar out crops and table top mountains grabbing our attention in front of us. We walked past historic volcanic lava tubes, fields covered in stone fossils and circled by birds of prey. Our first hiking lunch was sat under an over hang with the view in front of us, rock hyrax running around below us and farmers slowly walking their donkeys miles in the distance.
Full of rice, vegetables and fruit, we carried on in the mid day sun winding our way across the musically sounding hollow rocks until our first mountain church peeked out in the distance. It looked a little like a rural Russia Orthodox church with a triangle roof and simple brick walls. As we got closer, it was became a bit of a let down until we realised that this wasn’t the actual church, just the entrance to the compound. The real church was dug into the rock, through a small white door way with beautiful hand paintings inside which were centuries old. Those were also the first time I had ever seen Saints with black faces and skin in paintings – ever other country I’ve ever been to (regardless of cultural, skin or location) has shown Saints and Christ as being white.
We followed the path down the side of the mountain past an oasis of palm trees, baby goats and fields full of chilies before arriving at our first camp site – a field next to the communal well in a quiet valley. Our camp chef had already got fresh coffee and popcorn waiting for us (I’ve no idea how they carried all this stuff) and our dinner was being chopped, sliced and diced as we sat down. Yellow Wood have a great set up where they supply the local guide with their equipment, including the tents, so they support the local communities and people yet give us Westerners the gear and comfort that we are used to. After a great dinner, we all clambered into our tents for a well deserved sleep – I woke a few times to pouring rain, the sound of mountain baboons barking and our armed night guard quietly chatting next to my tent.
In the morning after a great breakfast of pancakes with Nutella, strong coffee and copious amounts of fruit, we set off to explore our first church of the day – hidden on top of the table top mountain that had been beside our campsite. After following the river bed for a short while, the path suddenly kicked up steeply and we gained height fast with incredible views all around. Despite the narrow footing and lack of any real footpath, a small boy (in jelly shoes) was gently pushing his two cows up the same mountain to get them to the greener grass.
At the top, whilst we waited for the priest who was running up the mountain to let us in, we quietly stood in the cemetery, which was perched right on the edge of the table top with views stretching into the distance and vultures circling over head. It reminded me of the sky burial sites in Tibet.
The priest arrived and opened the small door to let us into the rock cave church. After ducking inside, the true extent of its size, height and complexness revealed itself – it was enormous! It could easily fit several thousand people inside with a separate area for the women as normal. As with the other churches, it was covered in beautiful hand art work which was centuries old, highly detailed and full of meaning – for example if you could see a person’s full face and both eyes in a painting then it meant they were a saint. The size and marks on the drums in churches all mean different things and are deliberately designed, the tall poles that they lean on in the church (they don’t sit down during service), are also an aid to show out of towners who may not speak the local language, which speed to sing the next song at and so on. It’s a fascinating and deep culture.
We retraced our steps back to the river bed before climbing up another mountain and followed a ledge for some time, stopping to eat some dates under an overhang. We sat in the garden of another rock church to eat lunch and were a little surprised that our scout wouldn’t let us go in – until 10 mins later when an entire funeral procession turned up all dressed in incredible clothing, carrying the coffin with the priest in full attire. I still don’t really know how they knew that it was coming as neither had phones but can only assume that they had been told by the few farmers that we had passed hours before hand. It was little surreal to see these people suddenly emerge at the top of the mountain but yet another sign of how active these churches really still were.
After another excellent trail lunch, we weaved our way down the mountain side to the flat plain below, following natural footpaths lined with huge cactus plants and past little mud house farms with haystacks outside. We briefly stopped to try some local homemade beer made by a blind lady in an old petrol drum. Our scout simply asked a few people before finding her house and she invited us in. It had a fruity taste and something I could have drunk more of but we were all a little nervous of getting ill, especially after they washed out the mugs we drank from with local water! The old lady refused to take any money and we had to literally push some into her hand as at least payment for the beer.
We carried on through the small village and followed a dirt track alongside a new mountain range for some time with a tiny little girl following us. She didn’t say anything and had to run every few steps as her legs were too little to keep up at normal walking pace. After a few miles, she got bored and turned around. I’ve read many TripAdvisor reports where people claim to be constantly harassed for money – we never saw that. We only got asked for pens (by the children) and empty plastic bottles so they could carry water in. We finally reached our campsite – under a massive sycamore tree which later was full of thousands of roosting birds. Some local dancers greeted us when we arrived and gave us a bottle of Ouzo (very random) as a gift. They also didn’t want any money and quietly left after a 30 min performance. We sat out under the massive tree all night watching the stars come out. Whilst I had insect spray on my legs, I had nothing on my upper body or neck yet didn’t get bitten once during the trip – I genuinely believe that the Craghopper’s NosiLife kit was a strong factor in that.
The following morning, stuffed on a breakfast of omelette, bread and fruit, we set off for our longest day which would include climbing the highest mountain on the Gheralta range. We cut through the first mountain by scrambling up massive boulders to nip across a fallen section rather than having to circumvent the line before following another river up to the foot of a massive and seemingly impassable face. Our local guide carried on walking and we found invisible paths switch backing up the rocks made from decades of feet and animals. An extra exciting moment was when we came across some paw prints made by a baby leopard!
After reaching the top, we carried along this particular mountain top before (literally) pushing up between huge cactus trees towards the top of our main game. Just below the final climb, a rock church sat on on the edge of a massive cliff overlooking the vast plain a few kms below us. Egyptian vultures circled us at this point and would later be flying below us when we finally got up to the top. Downing some water, we pushed on for the summit – along some fairly hairy ledges before a vertical-no-rope climb to the top. I’m not good with heights (but force myself to do it for the views) and this climb was particularly tricky with small hand holds and a sheer drop to one side. At one point Katia (she is a qualified ML), had to physically move my foot to another point after my brain refused to do it! The view was worth it though – 360 degree views of the mountain range we had already covered, what we were about to do and the vast plains spreading into the distance.
After a fast paced long descent following more ledges created by herd of sheep, we pitched camp beside a small farm house with chickens and donkeys wandering around. Sadly the wind picked up a lot this night as the normal local thunderstorm swirled around us (but never came too close) so this was the only camp spot that I couldn’t fly my DJI Mavic Mini drone over. Our tents got battered in the wind throughout the night but stayed upright and ear plugs did the trick to getting a decent nights sleep!
Our final full day hike awoke with a chicken clucking outside my tent – clearly not aware that one of its friends had been the dinner for the non vegetarians the night before! A few strong cup of coffees later and we set off down a sandy dry river bed, past the local school (including an actual tuck shop outside) and then started climbing again past an elderly sheep herder casually holding an AK47. We wound our way up high, following dirt paths and ledges with a high cliff to one side. Our attention was caught by something moving high above us and we realised that there was a large troop of geladas — also known as bleeding-heart baboons, looking down on us with numerous babies visible clinging onto their mothers with the larger males barking at us.
We stopped for coffee in a remote farm house that our main guide had discovered years before and had built up a friendship with over the years. The elderly farmer and his wife now looked after their 2 grand daughters after their parents had died in a rock slide on the path that we were about to walk. The two little girls made us coffee in the full traditional ceremony and as always it was so good – dark, strong and bitter.
Leaving the farm behind, we put long trousers on for a few miles whilst we pushed and squeezed our way through a massive cactus forrest – huge heavy immovable spikey plants that you had to duck under, push past and try not to get stabbed by – the lightweight Craghopper short sleeve t-shirt was surprisingly tough and despite getting caught a few times, didn’t tear or bobble. Apparently the path had been cleared recently but you wouldn’t have known it from the gymnastics we had to do to get through. Breaking free finally, we emerged on a high cliff with our church of the day just about visible below us down a steep and loose path. Some local villagers followed us down and made it look easy as the calmly walked down the steep terrain – all in their jelly shoes! The church was again stunning – cut into the solid rock, painted white with beautiful paintings inside on the walls and ceilings as normal.
We started our final steep descent down to a massive cliff overhang cave below which was the site of our final camp! The location of a school during the revolution, this huge cave was now the home to bats and several types of small monkey living in the trees nearby. It was a stunning location to finish in and made even better by the roaring fire that our guide built and the beers they had carried up from a village a few miles away. It was a perfect ending to our camping and I was a little sad to pack up my bag for the final time the next morning.
Our adventure wasn’t quite finished though as we hiked a short distance from the cave to the main road to re-find our minibus that we had climbed out of what seemed like a life time ago. We drove a short distance along the tarmac road before turning off down a bumpy dirt track. We climbed out and started hiking up lots of steps before getting to the solid vertical face of the world-renowned Abuna Yemata cave church which is situated at a height of 2,580 metres (8,460 ft). Here we did use ropes and a harness and had a scout climbing next to us showing us where to put our hands and feet – I do mean feet as well as you have to climb this in bare feet; no shoes are allowed as they consider the entire mountain to be sacred. After reaching the top, we walked (shuffled) along a tiny ledge with a rock face onside and a sheer death drop the other side to get to the final rock church. The original door (centuries old) was still in place and covered in butter that the women carry up to protect it from the wind and rain. Their original bible was also still in place with pages marked by years of greasy fingers opening and closing the same place over time.
After climbing back down, leaving the disappointed hungry vultures high above us, we drove a few hours to Mekele Airport for our flight back to Addis Ababa. Our pilot neatly avoided several large thunderclouds on the run in and made it a smooth final internal flight. After a quick wash we headed back out in to the city for a final group dinner at a fantastic Italian – Castelli Restaurant. An odd choice you might think for a final dinner in Ethiopia but it is a historic building and a long running fixture in this city and the food was excellent!
Tips and Tricks:
- The totally free offline maps.me app is getting better again and show nearly everything I wanted to plot
- Remember to book everything you can via TopCashBack – even when booking via Hotels.com, Booking.com etc or even direct with the hotel/car hire/carrier
- As always, my Revolut card worked perfectly
- I finally discovered Doxyxycline as an antimalaria tablet which also has anti biotics in it which I think saved me a few times!
- The Craghoppers gear was excellent. I’d highly recommend the NosiLife range