Facing old demons in Tigray

The Tigray was one of my favourite regions in Ethiopia.   Rock hewn monasteries perched on top of steep mountains, to be closer to god and protect from invaders.  I was looking forward to revisiting the lovely monastery of Maryam Korkor and also managing to visit Abune Yemata – I didn’t make it last time, but more on that later ..

We were met at Mekele airport by Zaray our guide, and our driver Fish.  As coincidences would have it, Fish had been my driver last time I was here (he was brilliant then, and has aged well though his English hasn’t improved one bit).   We popped by to see Dawit, the owner of covenant travel, who had organised my last trip here as well, several years ago, and had treated Tamara and I to his house for lunch with his family).  And then we headed a couple of hours north to the Gheralta escarpment, passing through towns that were quite unrecognisable.  The area is growing, half built hotels and office blocks were sprouting in Wikro Agula and there appears to have been an explosion in tuktuks- apparently several hundred thousand have been imported from India in the last five years – you can tell.   

Fortunately the landscape hadn’t changed, and it had retained its spaghetti western qualities, made more moody by the storm clouds and the humidity.  We had arrived early evening, and driving at nighttime is always a bit dicey anywhere in Africa.   No one really understands (or follows) road rules here, passing is at will, and headlights are largely optional, though if you are going to use them, you must remember to high beam all oncoming cars.  On the bright side, the Chinese work crew I saw on my last visit had clearly done their job and the road from mekele to hawzien was now entirely asphalted.  On the downside I saw at two dead goats and one dead dog who obviously didn’t understand the road rules. 

We would be spending three nights at the Gheralta Lodge – the first ‘boutique’ hotel in Ethiopia, I had stayed here years ago and it was lovely. Set up by an eccentric Italian, they grow their own veg and make excellent pasta.  The rooms are lovely but the organisation was and still is chaotic (an interesting blend of Italian and Ethiopian organisation).   Dinner was hearty and delicious and I got mildly drunk on the honey wine (the upside of barely drinking is that I can get drunk on half a glass of anything).   

Conquering old demons at Abune Yemata
After a leisurely lie in until 7.15, and one of the best showers I have had in Africa, we had a healthy breakfast of eggs, homemade bread, apple cake, and homemade guava jam.   Zaray, Fish and Dawit picked us up and we bumped along the gravel track to the entrance to Abune Yemata (see a great BBC video about it here and another sweet video here

Abune Yemata is a high monastery carved into the top of a rock pillar.  I have terrible vertigo and last time I was in Ethiopia i weighed significantly more than I do now, and I was too frightened to climb up the cliff face with toeholds.  This time I am fitter and stronger, but if anything my vertigo has gotten worse with age.   But they do now have a harness and a rope on the hairiest part of the climb so that was something.   Well I made it.  I tried to turn back once half way up the rock face but the scouts blocked my way.   And then I had a moment when I climbed onto an exposed flat rock with steep drop offs on all sides and I lay on the stomach and the poor scout had to say ‘stand up’ four times before I could get up.  And then I bottled it on the ledge inching along to the entrance.  But I made it.    

The priest was adorable and is clearly used to freaked out faranjis (foreigners) arriving at the door.  The paintings are stunning and ancient and worth the trip.   And Dawit (our local Tigray guide) assures me no one has died here (though people have fallen).   

Hiking up to Maryam Korkor
Feeling triumphant, we decided to head straight over to the climb to Maryam Korkor.   We acquired another volunteer scout as we headed off and just as well as I was in the mood to go fast.  Dawit told me it would take fit people an hour and 20 minutes to get to the top so I decided to try for 30 minutes.   We started off too slowly, but I got my new friend Gabriel Giorgis the scout to jog the flat bits, so we made it up in just under 31 minutes (Strava here).   Steph wasn’t too far behind in 54 minutes, but in fairness he was handicapped by stomach pains from last nights chilli.  Gabriel was most amused and asked Dawit the guide when he arrived if I worked in sport.   The view out across to Abune Yemata was fabulous.

The church of Maryam Korkor is lovely but the highlight for me is the tiny monastery of Daniel Korkor which is carved out of the cliff face and accessed by a narrow ledge.  It has stunning paintings, and an outstanding view.
For entertainment (and to the annoyance of the tourists coming up hill), Gabriel and I decided to try and beat our time down the hill and so we ran down in just under 21 minutes pretending we were airplanes.   He was fun and apparently I was the first tourist who had jogged down with him.   
After that we retired for a lazy afternoon in the lodge, hubby drinking lots of mirinda to deal with his ailments (it is his miracle cure).    And yet another substantial Italian dinner and a good night sleep 

Visiting the Danakil depression
I had wanted to visit the Danakil for years, but last time it was off limits due to safety concerns.   Several groups of tourists have been shot or kidnapped over the years (always blames on the Eritreans).  Things have settled down some (the last incident was in December 2017), and the local afar tribe have now made an industry out of tourist security.   Everyone is obliged to have an afar escort in the territory and it isn’t cheap.   The Afar are the local people who have carved a living out of the desert hacking out salt and transporting it on camel trains to Mekele. It’s a tough region, temperatures average 35 degrees and the ‘depression’ is 100m below sea level (the lowest spot in Africa).  This is one of the poorer areas in ethiopia.  The roadside huts are built of plastic and branches, and are far from any obvious water or sources of food.  The afar have a challenging relationship with the Amhara and it feels more like Djibouti here than Ethiopia. 

One advantage of visiting now is that there is now an asphalt road most of the way to Dallol (thanks to the Chinese) so what once would have taken 5-7 hours now took 3.5.  The drive was stunning, leaving the yellow rock of the Gheralta, descending down through the lush green gorges around Agula, arriving in the black moonscape of Berhile and then finally the stunning white salt plain of the Danakil.    

We stopped in Berhile to do some paperwork, and then again closer to Dallol to pick up our ‘guards’.   One of them was young, with a serious face and a battered Kalashnikov.  The other was much older and only had the use of one eye.  I was assuming that the ‘toughness’ of our guards correlated with the potential of any actual danger, and wasn’t expecting anything much to happen.

A large group of camels and men were hard at work on the side of the road, hacking salt from the earth in the same way that the locals had done for centuries.  Big blocks of salt which they took on long camel train to Mekele, each camel would have 30 slabs of salt (c.200kg) and in total each camels load would be sold for c. 500 birr (under $20)

Not far away from the camels were the main reason people visit the Danakil, a spectacular geothermal area with incredible pools of sulphur in amazing colours.   The guard matter of factly informed us a German tourist had died on the site a few days ago, falling behind the group, fainting and slipping into the sulphur.   We were pretty careful with our foot placement after that.   

The area is stunning, we stopped by some incredible, if phallic rock formations and also the large shallow salt water lake.  The landscape is very similar to the Bolivian altiplano, but much hotter with the temperatures reaching 36 degrees before lunch.   

We retreated back to the car, blasted the air con and still sweated buckets (apart from Fish who was as cool as ice and was still wearing his sweater)….. it was an hour or more before we started climbing out of the depression and we finally opened the windows.  It was a long day, almost 8 hours of solid driving but totally worth it.    It’s our last night at Gheralta – more pasta for dinner and a big nights sleep before heading to Harar tomorrow 

Hawzien, April 23,2019 
Additional notes

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