Time travellers – Lalibela
Hilary Bradt, founder of Bradt guides, first visited Ethiopia in 1976, and wrote home about fleas, unrest and staggering beauty. How different would it be now?
In 1976 I backpacked through Ethiopia during the final stages of an 11-month overland journey from Cape Town to Cairo. I was arrested for discussing capitalism, bitten to distraction by fleas, walked for three days to reach the holy city of Lalibela, and was forbidden to travel at night because of shifta (bandits). Nevertheless, it was one of the highlights of my African travels because of its cultural distinctiveness and gorgeous landscape.
During the trip I wrote home to my parents regularly, describing the highs and lows of our travels. They kept my letters, and I rediscovered them last October, when I decided to return to Ethiopia and see for myself the changes that had taken place.
My 2010 itinerary covered just the popular northern historical circuit, but these places were also the highlight of the 1976 journey. Then we took a series of buses from the Kenyan border town of Moyale to Addis Ababa, where we stopped to research what there was to see in the rest of the country. In 1976 there were no guidebooks to this part of Africa, so we talked to as many people as possible, experts and locals. Then we spent two months in Ethiopia, crossing the border into Sudan just a few hours before our visas were due to expire. In 2010 I travelled in much more style, staying in new luxury lodges, and found a country that is still exotic, but now safe and accessible.
1976 We have arrived in Mega. Amazing! The streets are teeming with people like something out of the Arabian Nights. Wild-looking men carrying spears, aluminium-encased women with sagging breasts, fuming camels, donkeys, children riding around on billy goats. “Ferengi, ferengi!” shriek the children (the word for foreigner).
Just wandering the streets and listening makes us realise how different this is from the rest of Africa. Radios are belting out the wailing Arab-style music beloved in Ethiopia. Competing with this racket is the jangle of harness bells as skeletal horses with running sores are whipped along at a spanking trot. And louder than anything, of course, is “Ferengi, ferengi!” The small towns of Ethiopia are, frankly, squalid. The streets run with sewage, and people and animals urinate at will. There seem to be a huge number of people dressed in monochrome rags who have nothing to do but bait foreigners, and the angry demands for money follow us everywhere.
2010 There are still monochrome rags but the anger seems to have dissipated. People chat to us in perfect English and sometimes try to sell us handicrafts or offer to be a guide, but politely.
We can get away from the people but I wish we could also get away from the fleas. I’m awfully lucky – apparently I don’t taste good – but George is covered in bites, even though he’s spent most nights on the floor. We pay less than $1 for a room. One of the boys found us this little hotel (in Lalibela) which has hay on the floor and a lovely shower in the middle of the “landing”: a bucket with a shower attachment that the landlady filled with hot water.
2010 Being whisked from the airport to the Sheraton is a very agreeable way of gently adjusting to the country. There’s a huge swimming pool, roses are in bloom in the verdant garden, and I feel pleasantly cocooned from reality. Later we visit Bahir Dar and the new Kuriftu Resort and Spa. I don’t think I mind luxury after all. I’m sitting on the terrace overlooking Lake Tana, with a beer and my binoculars, watching a group of pelicans skimming over the water while a fish eagle surveys the scene from the top of a tree.
Food and drink
1976 We have our first proper Ethiopian meal. The injera, flatbread, is identical in appearance and texture to George’s old foam-rubber mattress. It has a sharp, sour taste. The wat, stew, can be nice or only tolerable but is necessary to make the injera bearable. Together they’re rather good.
You sit round a big plate of it, and the foam rubber comes folded tastefully over the sludge of wat in the centre. A short hand-washing ritual is followed by rip, scoop, slurp. Fingers only, right hand only. Apart from bread this is the only food you can buy, so it’s good that we like it.
In Dessie we pass a tej abet (mead house) from where rather nice music is issuing. When we peep through the windows we are beckoned in to drink tej, mead, or honey wine, and listen to some very good playing on the one-stringed African violin. I never knew that such tonal music could come from such a primitive instrument. A song was created for the ferengis and then our names were requested and a special song for George was sung. And then for Hilary. Everyone loved it although we could only understand the names. Then a woman swaggered in, very elegant, and sang a song about George’s watch and how nice it would be to have it. We decided we’d better leave, after making an appropriate money donation.
2010 For our first meal in Addis we’re invited to the Yod Abyssinia restaurant and any suspicions that Ethiopia has changed beyond recognition are expelled. There is our favourite African meal: the same grey foam-rubber and the same-coloured piles of sludge. But this is superior wat, fiery hot, multi-flavoured, and utterly delicious. Music is played throughout the meal, but then the dancing begins and it is quite extraordinary. Ethiopians dance as you’d imagine insects would dance: their heads, chests and hips seem to be three different components, all moving independently. Most incredible of all is the woman with dreadlocks who tosses her head so rapidly and so violently that you expect it to sail across the room and land on someone’s injera.
1976 We thought it would be easy to take a bus to this town – only 20km or so away – but the problem is that a horde of the roughest, strongest-looking men imaginable fight their way on board in a surging, punching mass and we don’t want to be killed. After the second bus arrives and leaves, a Belgian woman shows us the way. We hadn’t thought she had a hope of getting on but we watch her select a ruffian who had fought his way to a seat, and take his place calmly a little later. Money is exchanged. Once we get the idea we hire a nice tough teenager, who succeeds in getting a seat. We pay off the ruffian and arrive in one piece.
On buses we have a bit of empathy with zoo animals since our experiences are pretty similar. Large crowds stare at us, pulling funny faces, knocking on the glass to attract our attention, and trying to feed us unsuitable food.
2010 Today we are riding in a sleek white minibus, just the two of us plus our guide, gazing out of the window. We don’t see the stone; we just hear the impact, like a gunshot, and see the flower-shaped damage to the windscreen. Our driver swerves to the left and stops in the middle of the carriageway facing the hooting, oncoming traffic. Driver and guide leap out and catch the culprit – a small, wide-eyed child. A crowd gathers. Lots of yelling and some screaming. Guide and driver shout as loudly as the boy’s family, extended family, neighbours, friends … Suddenly there is a flash of metal – a man has produced a gun. I decide enough is enough and tell the driver that I will pay for the damage and please can we proceed?
1976 We are heading for the Bale mountains but the bus breaks down in Dodola, so we are forced to stay the night at the only hotel. Some students join us in the bar and start telling George things like: “My teacher says that in America black people can’t go to school.” It’s impossible not to respond to a challenge like that and soon we are talking freely about capitalism versus socialism. We should know better.
As we get up to go a fellow approaches us, identifies himself as an army lieutenant and asks to see our documents. We assure him that we are staunch socialists who just happen to come from a capitalist country. He is not impressed, having overheard much of our conversation. He forbids us to continue to Bale and says he’ll come for us the next morning. I am very nervous: we’ve been so aware of the dangers of talking about politics and this is the first time our guard has slipped. I expect a 3am rap on the door followed by an execution but it is after breakfast that we are told to come to the police station and bring our documents. After the statutory wait of an hour or so, a very charming district commissioner comes to see us. He tells us that there is fighting in the Bale mountains and that it is dangerous for us to go there. Fair enough – we agree to turn back. Our lieutenant says, in English: “They were talking about socialism. They must learn not to do that.” But he is politely put in his place. We leave, considerably relieved.
Later we hear on TV that 28 “enemies of the masses” were “liquidated” in Bale, where we were stopped by that army lieutenant. I guess he did us a favour.
2010 Ethiopia is now, broadly speaking, a democracy but the people still bear the scars of the Red Terror. Literally. An excitable waiter at one restaurant insists on rolling up his trousers to show me the scars from where he had been branded as a 14-year-old schoolboy for demonstrating against the Derg (communist government). We chat to Jason Donald, who’s been teaching English in Addis, and ask him about present-day students’ attitude to politics. “If I touched on the subject in class they fell silent. There were shootings in 2005 in Meskel Square after demonstrations against election-rigging. One woman told me that during this time she hardly ate, because all the transport links in and out of Addis were shut.”
1976 This is stage one of our great Lalibela trek. I have to admit to being more nervous about this excursion than any other. The tourist office said it was “not advised” to go there. It’s shifta country and the second anniversary of the revolution. Rumour has it that there’ll be plenty of shooting.
The road between Kobo and Muja is the most spectacular mountain road we’ve been along in Africa. Beautifully constructed two years ago by the Dutch, it winds up from Kobo where it’s sweaty-hot, to a pass where giant lobelia grow in profusion and an icy wind sweeps through the thin clothing of the shivering passengers on the truck. A great dome of rock juts up sheer from the road and the surrounding mountains are volcanic in origin and crazy in outline.
Our plans to hire mules to carry us or our luggage come to nothing – too expensive – so from Muja we decide to walk the remaining 60km.
The scenery is still gorgeous and the people are refreshingly uninhibited. A man accompanying his wife, who is riding a mule walks with us and when we come to the river he strips off and has a swim. Then he notices the poor ferengis struggling on the sharp stones and so rushes back to give assistance, one hand modestly covering his privates. Even that is forgotten later when it seems that he wants medicine. He pulls his penis out and shows it to me, and when I say, “No thank you,” shows it to George, who examines it politely and says it looks OK to him. We never learn what he actually wants.
On the return trek, a man rushes up and greets us enthusiastically. It is our friend with the Problem Penis. He again wants medicine so we agree to anoint a few sores with the mercurochrome we carry. Immediately we are running an impromptu clinic. It is appalling. Skinny arms are stretched towards us, covered in scabs and spots, some open, some infected. I doubt our disinfectant will have any effect except psychological. A woman pulls back a filthy shawl so that I can anoint her baby’s hands. They are covered in septic spots. Where there should be eyes are two clusters of flies. Hopeless.
We wonder what had caused all those skin eruptions. Then we see the smallpox van go by. God, it could be, I suppose. Better check when we’re in Addis.
2010 Lalibela was, and still is, the number one sight in Ethiopia and perhaps the most astonishing man-made site in sub-Saharan Africa. Its rock-hewn churches date from the 12th century and are not to be missed. Last time we walked to Lalibela; this time we flew from Axum. The landscape was no less dramatic from the air: below the wing were biscuit-colour plains with large bites taken out of the edges where rivers had gouged deep canyons, lined with basalt pillars.
The increase in tourist numbers has had a beneficial effect on the disease and poverty that was so distressing in 1976. Several charities work in the region to improve health and education, including Ethiopia Education Aid (ethiopiaeducationaid.org) and PLAN (plan-uk.org), which helps a variety of community projects.
I’ve reread these letters with a mixture of awe at how tough I was in those days, and slight embarrassment at my mode of travel this time. However, Ethiopia deserves to be loved wholeheartedly, and the hassle and discomfort of travel 35 years ago meant I was glad to cross the border into Sudan. This time I almost wept that my gorgeous trip was coming to an end.
• Ethiopian Airlines ( ethiopianairlines.com) flies from Heathrow to Addis Ababa via Cairo from around £440 return. A 10-day trip with Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004, rainbowtours.co.uk) visiting Bahir Dar, Gondar, the Simien mountains, Lalibela and Addis Ababa, with two nights based at Kuriftu Resort and Spa, costs from £2,675pp. The dry season, from October to January, is the favourite time to visit Ethiopia, but travel is possible all year round. For more details, see the Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (bradtguides.com, £16.99)