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(2014 - Winter Issue)


It’s a warm Saturday, market day in Lalibela.

We walk through the cobbled streets with our guide, our muleteer and his grumpy equine companion, who seems less than thrilled about the prospect of lugging our backpacks up a mountain. We’re already at 2,400 metres above the distant sea. By the time we arrive at our destination, we’ll be 1,000 metres higher.

We have spent the last few days time-travelling in Lalibela, a long-ago capital of Ethiopia. The city is named for the 12th-century king, who, legend has it, was responsible for the construction of its remarkable complex of 11 subterranean, rock-hewn churches, which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

An Ancient Footpath

Soon, we leave the city streets behind and join a steep and ancient footpath. It’s early afternoon, and the traffic on the mountain is heavy. There are a few donkeys, but mostly it’s a stream of country folk on foot. They are farmers headed home from market, carrying everything from scuffed plastic jugs of cooking oil to rolls of roofing metal. Many of the men are dressed in the local fashion. It’s a practical blend of old and new: a gabi, a kind of multi-purpose blanket wrapped around the head and shoulders, hand-sewn short shorts covered in decorative buttons, set off by neon-hued plastic sandals. They move effortlessly up the rocky slope, arms draped over the omnipresent wooden staffs they carry yoke-like across their shoulders. The women, elegant in their long, colourful dresses, tote impossibly large bundles on their slim backs. 

Frequently, we step aside to let them pass. But mostly it’s an excuse to catch our breath and gulp some water. The air is thin and getting thinner. “Selam,” we gasp; “Selam,” they respond, before disappearing around the next rocky outcrop. Children, tending flocks of goats, puzzle over our passing on their mountain. The aroma of wild thyme fills the air.

Three and one-half hours after setting out, we leave the trail, gingerly cross a narrow, natural stone bridge and pass through a metal gate. There, a grass-covered amba—a mesaopens before us,shimmering gold and silver in the late afternoon breeze. On all sides, there are precipitous drops of many hundreds of metres, panoramic views of valleys patched with farms and tiny villages stretching back to the distant city. Look up, and the mountain peaks march into the distance. 

Magical Moments

This is the Lalibela Hudad, hudad meaning “big farm” in Amharic. It is a one-time grazing common of 10 hectares purportedly christened by King Lalibela himself. Nine hundred years later, a honeymooning Addis Ababa hotelier came across it while hiking with his new bride.

“We spent three magical nights in this beautiful place,” Mesfin Haileselassie says from Addis. “And the idea of creating a mountain eco-lodge easily came to mind.” We, too, will spend three magical nights here in one of the Hudad’s five tukuls, a traditional round, thatch-roofed stone hut plastered with straw and mud. No electricity, no plumbing, no running water, no refrigeration, no heating.

Our first evening, we sit by a fire, wrapped in blankets, outside the stone dining hut. We are served a traditional fasting (meaning meatless) platter, prepared, as are all meals on the mountain, over a charcoal or eucalyptus fire. Dinner consists of dollops of various wots—stews of sometimes spicy black, red and yellow lentils and vegetables—on injera, the ubiquitous Ethiopian pancake made from tef, an iron-rich cereal grass.

After dinner, a handful of local men, recruited by the Hudad, materializes out of the dark. They sit and stoke the fire and share the local news: Tonight, there are vague rumours of a sheep-hungry leopard somewhere on the mountain. Afterward, in an ages-old ritual of hospitality and humility inspired by Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet, they subject our weary legs to a vigorous toes-to-knees massage. A local charmer named Ato Kasaw spins his way through a lengthy a cappella ballad, which includes several ad-libbed verses poking affectionate fun at the ferenji visitors.  

Later, outside our tukul, the night sky hangs like a cosmic chandelier. The stars are so in-your-face you have to suppress an urge to duck a careless kick in the head from Orion. Inside, under a breathtaking weight of thick blankets, we sleep the sleep of the dead.

In the morning, we have breakfast beneath a bright blue sky. We sip our coffee and watch in silence as eagles paraglide in search of lizards sunning on the rocks. They swoosh so close over our heads you can track their eagle eyes, you can hear them slicing through the air. Thick-billed ravens offer sarcastic commentary from a wary distance.

One translation for lalibela is honey-eater, and everywhere on the Hudad the bushes buzz with honey bees. One night, we hold our flashlights from a safe distance as some of the staff, their heads wrapped in scarves, steal a comb oozing with rich, dark honey for all of us to share.

Ground level we have largely to ourselves, except for a single cow and a troop of so-called gelada “baboons,” which aren’t really baboons, but large, shaggy grass-eating monkeys with demonic red eyes and bright red, hourglass-shaped patches like team logos on their chests. The big males, their leonine manes fluttering in the breeze, stuff their faces with grass, while nonchalantly keeping tabs on their brood and on us, sitting quietly in the grass 10 metres away.

The geladas and the bees are on to something here. And so are we.

Travel Planner

Ethiopian Airlines flies direct Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from Toronto to Addis Ababa with a short stop in Rome. From Addis Ababa, Ethiopian offers daily flights to Lalibela via Gondar, and three times weekly via Bahir Dar. 

For travel information, a good start is the Bradt guidebook Ethiopia, by Philip Briggs.

For more information on Lalibela Hudad, go to lalibelahudad.com. 

Thanks to a new road, about 70 per cent of the trek from Lalibela to the Hudad can now be covered by vehicle. Our recommendation: Walk it, if you can.

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