Ethiopia: Lalibela & Gondar
– second part of my visit to Ethiopia in November/December 2014 –
The famous churches of Lalibela are waiting. To get there from Djibouti most people would have chosen the following approach: Taking a day-long bus from Djibouti Ville to Dire Dawa, another day-long bus to Addis Ababa and another day-long bus from Addis to Lalibela. I chose another option, why not try to get there on the most direct route? Small roads with rare or none public transport promise an eventful journey and will still be faster. I arrive at the Djiboutian side of the border with the one daily bus in the middle of the night, shortly after 3 AM. I sleep for a few more hours sitting on a bench to wait for the sun to rise, before taking the short walk to the border facilities.
On the road
There would be a bus for the next stretch of my journey but it will only leave around noon and that is too late. I rather try to hitchhike. Ethiopia is a landlocked country and due to political reasons Djibouti is the only harbour it can use. There are basically no cars but a steady stream of trucks going in both directions. I soon end up sitting in one of them. The price we have agreed on is all right. A modern and comfortable Iveco with two friendly drivers, one of whom, Utia, speaks fairly good English. The landscape is beautiful and I have the chance to talk with them about life. They shuttle back and forth between Addis and Djibouti, they like their work and it pays good money. We pass a truck that has run into the trailer of another truck. It seems the accident has not happened long ago and the house of the truck has been totally destroyed, I wonder what happened to the driver. People drive too long, Utia says, and people chew too much khat (a stimulating plant) while driving. They wouldn’t touch it on the road.
We come to a halt in a small village as the road in front of us is blocked. Suddenly our truck jolts a few centimetres forward. We look in the mirrors. Obviously, another truck has hit our truck. They tell me to stay inside, having a foreigner around in such a situation is not helpful, the only glance I get is through the side mirror. The other truck has touched us and lost its fender in the process. There is no serious damage and we soon continue our journey. After a pleasant ride, I say good-bye at the crossroads in Mille.
There are a lot less trucks on the road I am supposed to take now. There are no buses at all, so hitchhiking is now really my only option. I have to wait a bit until I find my way into the truck of Ermeas. Magnificent landscapes again. I like travelling by truck, you always have a frontside view, it is not too fast so you can take the landscape in. Sometimes, it is too slow, we generally do not move at high speed and we have to get a new wheel and it takes more than an hour. The end of the trailer is fitted with barbed wire to prevent people from climbing on it or just hitching a ride without the driver knowing about it. It is already dark as we reach Woldya. I struggle a bit to find a hotel in the darkness.
The next morning, I head to the bus station. The bus operates on the order of leaving when full. It takes ages. I wish myself back to the world of trucks.
I don’t want to marvel too long about Lalibela’s churches. They were included in the first batch of twelve World Heritage Sites declared by UNESCO in 1978. Ethiopia was one of the first nations to adopt Christianity in the 4th century and the churches were built from the 7th to the 13th century. I am not sure if building is the correct word as the churches consist of massive rock. The exterior shape of the churches was hewn out of the rock and the interior of the churches was carved into this rock.
Not all churches are as visually stunning as is St. George (Bet Gyorgis) but they all have a great atmosphere. Priests are present in some and one offers to have his picture taken in full regalia, for a fee of course. The ticket is 50$, which I find justified, and is valid for a week. That is a nice touch by the Ethiopian tourism authorities to allow people to explore the site with time. The ticket is also valid for some more remote and hard to reach sites outside of Lalibela. Unfortunately, many tourists do not know to value that largess and a formidable trade in second hand-tickets has developed. The passport number is marked on the ticket but unfortunately, the guards do not check.
I head on to Gondar. The guys in the minibus are annoying as they demand widely inflated prices from tourists. Gondar is an old capital of Ethiopia and has several sites, foremost the Royal Enclosure but also Fasil’s Bath or the beautifully painted church of Debre Birhan Selassie.