Ethiopia: Lalibela to Omo Valley

30 December 2012 – 11 January 2013

The drive to Lalibela, the site of Ethiopia’s most famous rock-hewn churches, was another beautiful one through the mountains. When we got there we went to check out Ben Abeba, a restaurant that had been recommended as a potential venue for New Year. It’s run by a Scottish woman and is the most amazing structure built on the edge of town with stunning views out over the mountains and valleys. It was designed by two local children and is intended to be an extension of the hill it’s built on as well as the trees around it. Very unique and particularly impressive that she was able to get it built in such a remote area.

We were later joined by Anna, James, Ali, Anneke and Floris and the following day took a tour around the churches. There are 13 churches in the town and each had been carved out of the rock. In one of the clusters the churches have been excavated so that they are similar to normal buildings, but below ground level. The other cluster are mainly carved into the rock face. It was incredible to walk around them and through the tunnels and courtyards that surround them imagining the work that must have gone into making them.

We were visiting the churches a week prior to the Ethiopian Christmas (7 January), but even then there were many pilgrims there. We couldn’t really imagine what such a small town would be like with the estimated 100,000 pilgrims there at that time. What makes the churches at Lalibela particularly special is that they are still in use and we were lucky enough to visit one of them as a service was taking place. People were packed in like sardines, swaying and chanting with a microphone being passed between the priest and others in the congregation, creating a pretty tuneless but very atmospheric environment.

In the evening we all headed over to Ben Abeba for dinner and in time to watch the sun set. It was really nice to have a group of us together for the evening and we enjoyed a few drinks with the amazing views around us. After dinner we moved on to Torpedo, the only other venue in town that seemed to have anyone in it. New Year is at a different time in Ethiopia, so there wasn’t much celebrating going on. We must admit that we left the others to it and were in bed before midnight – not very rock n roll, but the combination of a long drive the next day and Karen feeling pretty ropey made it reasonably justifiable!

After our quick visit it was time to hit the road again. We would definitely agree that Lalibela is not to be missed by anyone going to Ethiopia and would put it alongside Petra in terms of its awesomeness. The only downside to Lalibela is the scale of the hassle you get there – far worse than anywhere else we’d been in the country. You couldn’t walk for two minutes without several children or young adults latching onto you, each pretty much giving you the same story and looking for handouts.

Our next main destination was the capital, Addis Ababa. The roads around Lalibela are pretty rough, so we broke up the journey by staying in a town called Kombolcha along the way. Once in Addis we headed to Wim’s Holland House, another popular overlanders’ camp. Having been in fairly remote locations of late, we’d been imagining all the things we’d be able to do and buy in a big city. Not all of these expectations were met, but we did treat ourselves to some imported food and booze in one of the “ex-pat” supermarkets.

On our first evening, and Ali’s last in Ethiopia, we went to eat at what is meant to be Bob Geldof’s favourite restaurant in Ethiopia, an Italian called Castelli’s. When you walk through the door the wall is covered in photographs of the owner with the likes of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The food was okay, some things being very nice (the pasta and the vegetables), some average (the steaks), but it was nice to have a change from injera. However the owner was far from friendly: at around 10pm he obviously wanted to go, so rather than coming and thanking us for our custom, we simply got a sturn look and were told “finished”. Clearly when you have celebrities gracing your doorstep it’s not necessary to be nice to normal customers!

After a few days and Charlie having had a service we set off with Anna and James towards the South Omo Valley. A guy Karen had met in Brazil a few years ago who was doing a round the world trip in a Landie had recommended going there if we had time and we were excited to see some of the tribes that live there.

On the way south we spent a couple of nights at Arba Minch and were amused along the way to witness not just a lorry being washed in the river, but it being washed by several naked men. Well, if you’re going to wash a lorry, you may as well wash yourself at the same time eh?! We arrived on Ethiopian Christmas day (we didn’t notice much of a difference from any other day) and camped at the Bekele Mola Hotel where they have spectacular views over the two lakes there. And if that wasn’t enough, they also have three resident warthogs who enjoyed being fed mangos and bread and had several standoffs with the dogs who also live there.

We’d heard that the road into the National Park nearby was terrible so, with our journey ahead in mind we decided to visit one of the villages nearby (Dorze) instead. We hired a guide, nicknamed Bob (Marley) by Marcello due to his dreads, who showed us even more stunning views out over the lakes, and then took us to one of the local family’s huts. We were a little apprehensive about seeming like we were being voyeuristic, but knowing that the money goes to the community and the locals take it in turns to open up their homes put our minds at rest.

It was very interesting to actually go inside one of the huts and see how they’re laid out. There’s a small entrance/porch which then opens up into the main living area. Around the outside of this space there is a room for the cattle/goats, storage, a bedroom for the parents, with beds in the main area for the children. As we went in it took a while for our eyes to adjust to the dark, but a bit of time and the fire the father lit we could soon see the various features and utensils. It was very cosy, but even though we’re camping we have the luxury of being able to switch on a light and refrigerate food. We were then taken to see how they make a kind of bread out of the fibres of the leaves of what they call the “fake banana” plant. This we got to sample along with an incredibly spicy mixture of chillies, ginger and garlic washed down with the local homebrew. This mixture would certainly clean out any cobwebs and sent Karen into a coughing fit, earning her the nickname Spicy for the rest of the day!

From here we drove to a town called Key Afer. We’d been told that one of the best ways to see the tribes was to visit the towns in the area on one of the market days where they would travel to either sell or buy goods. Luckily our timing worked out perfectly for this town, where the Ari tribe is prominent. One of the local kids insisted on showing us around and carrying what he could for us and he first took us along to the animal market followed by the more general market. Although we had seen some of the tribes along the road, it was amazing to see so many of them at the market. Colourful beads are worn by both the men and women and they were keen to show us (and try and sell us) their wooden head rests that they use as pillows. As well as beads, there were a lot of sashes and clothes decorated with shells, and some of the women wore what looked like bowls on their heads to protect their hair. Best of all though were those that had many colourful plastic hair clips in their hair, some with the addition of bright plastic sunglasses like some kind of retro 80s style, only cooler. Not something we expected to see worn by tribes in the south of Ethiopia though!

After visiting the market we headed north west to the Mago National Park. We’d seen that there was a camping spot close to the Park HQ so decided to stay there for the night. Once we’d negotiated our way along the muddy track, we found a fantastic camping spot waiting for us by the river. It was very basic (just a long-drop and water pump), but right in the middle of the park and, other than the HQ, very remote. It was wonderful to sit around a fire that night listening to the sounds of the animals and watching the fireflies around us. While we were there, we were treated to the sight of black and white colobus monkeys and olive baboons and whilst driving along the more remote track near the HQ we saw some antelope and lots of elephant dung. Alas, we didn’t spot any actual elephants though.

Before leaving we headed further in to the park to see the Mursi tribe and visit one of their villages. We’d been warned that you need to go in the morning otherwise they would all be too drunk by the afternoon and we did wonder how uncomfortable the experience would be as you can’t help but feel like you’re intruding.

The Mursi tribe are probably most famous for the huge lip plates that the women wear and they also have some kind of branding or markings on their skin. It was quite something to see these in the flesh and the lip plates look particularly uncomfortable, the women periodically flipping them downwards to spit (we’re not sure if the plate makes swallowing tricky or if spitting is just part of the norm!). As we were driving in, we saw quite a few tribes people and children along the road with various adornments and/or body paint. The idea is for people to stop and pay for photos. We were ushered into one of the villages by one of the tribesmen and as soon as we got out of the car were surrounded, each of the Mursi wanting us to pay them for a photo. It got really intense, with some of them latching onto you and not letting go. Unfortunately two young tribesmen took a beeline for Marcello and wouldn’t let him get away, originally agreeing on a price for a photo and then insisting the price was each not together. In the end we decided to leave before anything got more heated. Luckily for Anna, James, Anneke and Floris the experience wasn’t as intense and they managed to have a more relaxed experience.

Reflecting on both our experience and what we’d heard, something has obviously gone very wrong. A large part of this is definitely the ill effects of tourism and the fact that this is now a large part of how they make money, also meaning that the children are kept away from school to earn for the tribe. However there must also be more to it as we could clearly see the effects of the drink and “chat” (a plant that’s chewed and produces amphetamine-like stimulant) even quite early in the morning. With our limited knowledge it’s hard to know if some of these problems still would have come about if tourists had stayed away. It was certainly an experience; it’s just a shame that it wasn’t as positive for all parties as it could have been.

Glad to be on the move again, we made it out of the National Park and back onto a decent road to Turmi. This was to be our last night in Ethiopia and we spent it at the Buska Lodge. We were spared the decision over whether to fork out for a night of luxury in one of the rooms as they were fully booked, so the roof tent it was. However it was still nice to have a decent shower!

We’d decided to drive to Kenya via Lake Turkana. There are only two roads that you can take: this one and one via Moyale. The Turkana route is far more remote and can be pretty impassable if it’s been raining, so you need to have at least two cars to travel that way. As we were three (us, Anna and James and Anneke and Floris) this was possible. The reason for taking this road rather than the other is that, despite still being a rough road, the other one is worse, with terrible corrugation and potholes. The Turkana route had also been recommended to us as it’s a lot more scenic. After the constant requests for money, pens, sweets etc in Ethiopia we were really looking forward to a bit of remoteness and wild camping again. So, after getting ourselves and the cars stamped out at Omorate (there is no official border crossing on this route) we were on our way to Kenya.

We’d heard some real horror stories about Ethiopia and, despite being determined not to pre-judge a country until we’d experienced it for ourselves, we were a little apprehensive about what it may be like. We were actually very pleasantly surprised. Yes, you do get fed up with being seen as a walking bank/shop and you can’t allow yourself to get caught up with the disparity of what you have compared to the locals as there just is no comparison. However it is a beautiful country – the scenery was spectacular – and the majority of people were very friendly (and you can’t really blame others for trying their luck). We will particularly remember the site of children running for all their might to get to the roadside in time to wave and shout (you, you, you, money, money, money). We especially enjoyed the children that danced and were amused by the progression of shoulder-shaking to leg-wobbling to bum-wiggling and finally gymnastics the further south we got. Maybe we should try that ourselves if we run out of money?!

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