Lalibela - there and back again
Lalibela is one of the biggies of Ethiopia and we had been looking forward to it. We drove 60 km back towards Gonder on the tar, then turned off to the east onto a dirt road.
The Ethiopians have decided to rebuild the road to their biggest attraction, but have decided to do all 200 km in one hit. So instead of finishing a small section and moving on, the entire stretch is a complete mess, with every kilometre at some different stage in the road building process. We were pushed onto detours and diversions, we drove along recently bulldozed sections, ploughed our way though bulldust and potholes, and generally made heavy weather of it. We squeezed through narrow sections trying to pass trucks and buses that enveloped us in so much dust that we had zero visibility each time. We had to pull over off the side to let huge trucks pass - just about every truck was a B-double. And the trucks and buses themselves add further hazards to the road. When they break down - and that is frequent - the drivers put small boulders behind the wheels. But when they leave, they leave the rocks all over the road!
But the rewards were plenty. We marvelled at the incredible scenery around us - I can say without doubt that the lanscape rivals the Grand Canyon. We climbed mountains with sheer drops to the side to look over rich farming land, the fields a patchwork of green and yellow and brown with big haystacks shaped like pillbox hats. We drove through narrow passes not 20 metres wide that opened up a new vista of sweeping valleys and high mountains. And this not once or twice, but a dozen times, and each time took your breath away.
We drove through villages large and small, most with the distinctive round mud walls and conical thatched rooves. Children ran to the side of the road, waving frantically at us as we passed, but so many now had their hands outstretched and calling out for a pen, money, food. Aid has made the people here simply expect handouts for free - and the rich farmland is ample evidence that the local people can feed themselves in this region. If we stopped for even a moment to take a photo, from seemingly out of nowhere were scores of children running towards us, either to stand and stare or to demand pens, money, food.
We passed two "ambulances". A litter made of sticks and carried by four or five men held an obviously sick or injured man. The bearers were running accompanied by another man holding a saline drip high on a forked stick. The nearest village with any kind of clinic was 9 kms away and a decent hospital was about 60kms away.
We were also amazed at the number of eucalypt trees planted everywhere, in groves, forests, as windbreaks. They are by far the most prolific tree in this area. They are a tall, straight, thin variety that appears to be useful in many ways to the locals. The straight trunks are used as scaffolding and building material for their houses. Being hardwood, they make good charcoal whhich is sold in hessian bags all along the roadside. Thhe trees are cut off at ground level annd then allowed to sprout several new trunks whichh are equally straighht and tall. The leafy branches are collected and supplement the roofing thatch and are laced into the wooden fences.
We reached a height of over 10500 feet at the highest. The car really noticed the altitude and was very sluggish when pushing uphill.
Lalibela was at the top of the final climb up the mountains. At 9100feet it had magnificent views in all directions. We pulled into the Seven Olives Hotel on the side of the hill overlooking the main street annd the valley. We had rooms for the night and were glad of the warmm shower and the thick blankets - the nights up high are decidedly chilly.
Lalibela is famous for its rock hewn churches. The original builders decided to build by carving down into solid rock, not build up with stone from ground level. So everyy one of the 11 churches is a solid piece of rock. We had a guide for the morning who led us through the labyrinth of chasmms which linked one church with another. Some are freestanding structures, some are tunnelled into rockfaces but all are still in use today centuries after their construction. We were allowed inside and the resident priest donned his vestments and held the decorative cross pertaining to that particular church. Visiting eight of the churches meant walking downhill quite a way, so we elected to get a bus back up the hill to the hotel - the altitude takes your breath away - literally.
Now as you can see by the fact that I hhave not beenn able to upload to the blog for a while, internet is excruciatingly slow in Ethiopia. It is all dial-up and so we gave up trying to update the site after a while. But we still wanted to check emails. We went looking for an internet cafe, were acosted by a small cheeky child who assured us he could take us to cheap and fast internet! So we followed him and entered a mud brick hut down a dusty side lane in the town. We walked into what would be the front room (maybe the only room...) and there were 3 computers. Sure enough it was dial-up and slow, but it was cheap and we provided entertainment for the 5 teenage boys who sat on a couch and watched our every move while we were there.
The trip back had an extra dimension to keep us on our toes. Overnight it had rained - just a little, but enough to transform the dusty roads into muddy, slippery ones. Trucks and buses all along the way churned though the mud making deep ruts - and then they would get themselves thoroughly bogged. We passed at least 3 overturned trucks. At one point we came across a jumble of trucks, buses, minivans and a huge front end loader. At least 5 trucks on both sides of the road were bogged up to the axles and the loader was preparing to pull them out. We thought that if we simply stopped and waited we could be there for hours. So we put the Landie in low range four wheel drive and weaved in and out though the mud, barging through the mess, with people waving at us to stop while othhers simultaneously waved us on! With amazing ease we got through. Who said all those nasty things about Land Rovers!!!