The last 100 kilometres into Addis Ababa was on an expressway which was a tollway and cost a whopping $2.50 and well worth it. We stopped about 50 kilometres out for some lunch at a truck pull off but the stench from the human faeces beside the road was really off putting so we didn’t hang about! We arrived in Addis just after 1pm and went straight around to the Australian Embassy to vote in the next days Federal election but unlike the embassy in Nairobi this one didn’t give us the ability to do this so Australia don’t blame us for whoever you ended up with! We then found out that the Sudanese Embassy only took visa applications between 8.30 am and 10 am so were out of luck there too. For our time in Addis we stayed at an overland lodge called Wim’s Holland House which is an the overlanders desired choice in Addis Ababa, originally owned and run by a dutch man who passed away a number of years ago but the place is still being run by his wife. It is a fantastic place with double rooms and super clean shared bathrooms for the sum of $20 Aus dollars. It has great food and a well stocked bar all looked after by fantastic staff.
While in Addis we thought we really should visit the National Museum where Lucy or as the Ethiopians know her Dinkinesh (which means “you are marvellous “) is in residence. Lucy is a female hominid skeleton found at Hadar, about 300 kilometres north of Addis Ababa in the Awash valley. She was discovered in 1974 and is 1.1 metre tall and would have weighed around 29 kilograms and is approximately 3.2 million years old.
Anyway we arrived to find that there was no electricity so we ended up fumbling around in the semi dark trying to look at the exhibits which was quite challenging because the museum was full of students doing a research project making things even more dim! Outside in the gardens were some sculptures donated by various different countries but they were in a bit of a sorry state in gardens that really weren’t looked after. On Monday we turned up at the Sudan Embassy to see a crowd of a couple of hundred Ethiopians outside trying to get in to get work visas for Sudan, most were women and apparently they go to Sudan to take on maids positions which pay better than jobs in Ethiopia. We then found out that they had closed the doors because they already had enough applicants inside so we thought we would have to come back again the next day but decided to try knocking on the door anyway. When the door opened and they saw us we were ushered straight in and to this day I don’t know whether it was because we were white or that we were after Tourist Visas as opposed to work visas. Anyway they were very helpful and we had our applications submitted in no time and then walked back to Wim’s which was an interesting walk. That afternoon we heard from DHL that our roof top tent parts had arrived and we could pick them up so Marcus took a taxi out to do this while Pauline had a rest as she had developed a cold and felt miserable. Then the next morning we spent fixing the few issues we had with the roof top tent which apart from one broken part turned out to be quite minor issues that we could fix quite easily and also make sure that we didn’t have a reoccurrence of this problem. At Jungle Junction we had met a great young bloke called Willy who is from Switzerland and was riding his BMW Xchallenge motorbike from Switzerland down the west side of Africa and then back up the east side of Africa. We bumped into him again at Wim’s and I recruited him to help us with the fix as we needed an extra set of hands.Then it was back to the Sudan Embassy to pick up our visas only to find that they only give a one month visa commencing that day and we still needed 3 weeks to complete Ethiopia so we questioned this and we were told that they only give a one month visa where in Kenya they give a two month visa but that we could extend the visa at the border when we enter Sudan. So then we needed to visit the Ethiopian Department of Immigration to extend our visas here but were told that the extension is not tacked onto the end of the first one but is just another one month visa starting today and that it would cost us $100 US each. Now the first visa we picked up in Nairobi only cost us $40 US so we figured that they really don’t want to encourage tourism so we have no choice but to cut our Ethiopia visit a bit short. This only means we would miss seeing the old historic city of Harar but Marcus had already dreaded the 520 kilometre trip out there and then we would have to return the same way so we weren’t too upset. So we returned to Wim’s for our last night which was sad and happy, sad because we had really got to know the great staff and some of their local customers but happy because we were heading north once again and would be visiting some great sights.
The next morning we were off by 7.30 am and first stopped off at an ATM for some cash before then fueling up the Land Cruiser, fuel in Ethiopia can be a real issue but more so for petrol, Bridget and Topher had to resort to again buying 200 litres of petrol on the black market at three times the pump price. We on the other hand don’t seem to have a problem getting diesel and are now only paying about 93 cents a litre. Even at that time of the day it was crazy drive out of Addis and we were very happy to leave all the pollution behind. For most of the drive north we were following a ridge with great views on both sides and at one stage we went through a tunnel under a mountain only to pop out to a view that was just incredible. When dropping back down into the valley once again we saw a lot of the Gelada baboons which was very special because we thought we would only see them in the Simien Mountains.
As we were traveling along, again we saw a school with lots of students outside playing so swung in to give them a couple of soccer balls however here in Ethiopia there is very little English spoken so we really struggled to be understood and it ended up being a bit of a wrestling match as the children tried to get hold of the balls!
It was a relaxed drive stopping for coffee along the way as well as picking up some nice bread for lunch which we had with brilliant views.
Contrary to other peoples stories we had still had no trouble and in fact found the people of Ethiopia to be very friendly and always up for a joke. We were heading for Lalibela but decided that we would overnight at a hotel in a town called Dessie, picked out from our iOverlander app and it was a real gem. A really nice clean room with a comfortable, clean bed and a hot shower for 300 birr or $15 Australian dollars! Camping is going to be very difficult in Ethiopia because there just aren’t any organised camps and wild camping is just out of the question with us but at these prices who cares!
The next morning we woke before the alarm and decided to get up and go but before we left we saw that the bakery attached to the hotel was open and the smell of hot bread was intoxicating so we bought some rolls straight from the oven. Pauline buttered then straight away and then added vegimite and jam and breakfast was had as we drove along.
We left at 7am for what we thought would be a 4 or 5 hour drive but in actual fact it took 8 hours. This was because the route was through particularly fertile valleys which had villages spaced very close together and also over lots of mountains with the highest being over 3,500 metres.
Then to make matters worse a lot of the drive today was on some of the worst tar roads that we had encountered in Africa with pot holes that would swallow a truck but that was not really a concern because it was such an interesting drive, the time went very quickly. As usual we stopped in one of the towns that we passed through and had coffee but this time it was so good we had two! At lunch time it took us quite some time to find a quiet spot to stop and have lunch because the Ethiopians don’t really have a handle on ones personal space so the moment we stop they come over and hover about 3 feet away and just stare, not even trying to communicate. So we feel really guilty preparing and eating lunch in front of them.
The last 30 kilometre climb up to Lalibela is quite a steep climb and the views were awesome. Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilmigrage and devotion.Back in Addis we met a young man Fassil in the National Museum and we got talking only to find out that he was from Lalibela but was in Addis at University. He asked us if we would please go and see his family when in Lalibela to which we said of course we would. He also told me that he could set us up with a guide to take us around the 12 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela so we took down his details. As we drove into Lalibela we were recognised by Mamush so he waved us down, we had a chat and instantly felt he was the right man for the job. After we found our accommodation Mamush took us by Tuk Tuk around to see Fassil’s Mum and sister who were just lovely and we could tell they were both so proud of and missed Fassil very much. His mum made us some great coffee and we snacked on roasted wheat cornels while Mamush did some translating for all of us.
Mamush was back again to pick us up from the hotel the next morning and we first went to the ticket office to get the permit required to visit the Lalibela churches which cost us $50 US each covering us for all eleven churches. Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity and is still today a place of pilmigrage and devotion. The churches were in a group of four, six and then one on its own but all within a kilometre of each other and all built over a 23 year period in the 12th century. Each of the churches had their own unique style of architecture and decoration. Some had huge steel structures covering them to protect them from the elements. These were erected by Unesco World Heritage and some experts feel that these structures may have the potential to further damage and disrupt the churches and their enviroment. One thing is for sure and that is that they are a very ugly structure.
We started with the four grouped together but first we had a look through the museum which housed artefacts from all of the churches and included very old manuscripts, robes, chalices, artwork as well as a lot more but not really well exhibited and not well lite so we had to use our phone lights to see. The churches are simply an amazing work of engineering, literally carved out of solid rock. They first started by carving the outside down and then worked on the inside leaving pillars to keep strength within the churches. Each church had 3 doors, one for the women, one for the men and one for the priests. Inside was not much in the way of seating but rather just a carpet covered floor, some had frescoes painted in them and some had intricate carvings.
Of course being carved down into the rock water drainage for when it rained had to be thought about so there were drains taking the water away to a nearby water course and one was used for holy water.
On the outside around the edge were small caves carved into the rock where monks and nuns lived which when you saw them seemed way too small and probably very cold in winter.
Also in the courtyard of each church was a baptism pool still being used today, one church also had a fertility pool where women having difficulty conceiving would bath to help them overcome this problem.
Most of the churches had only one way in and one way out and usually via a very steep narrow stairway. However one church we entered had a tunnel leading through to the next church approximately sixty metres long which was very narrow, had low head room and after the first couple of metres was completely dark and black. When transitioning through the tunnel no light is allowed as a demonstration of the difference between hell and heaven. This was an accurate demonstration because it was what you could imagine entering heaven would be like as you ascended into the second churches light. We then visited the famous St George’s church which when viewed from ground level you could see the St George cross carved into the roof of the church and is probably the most photographed church of all of them.
All of the churches close between 12 noon and 2 pm and we had lunch in a hotel followed by a couple of the delightful Ethiopian coffees. After lunch we finished off what churches we hadn’t seen and then Mamush took us up to a vantage point where you can see all of the churches from above which was spectacular. At one stage during the day we were walking between two churches when we passed a young girl and we said hello to her and we ended up in a great conversation with her. We talked about her life here in Lalibela, her family, her education, and what she did for fun. When it came to education she told us that she was trying very hard to learn English which is not taught at school in Ethiopia but to do this she needed a book which her family could not afford. We asked if this book was available in Lalibela and she said yes there was only one shop though. So we asked her to take us to this shop and we made her day by buying the book and presenting it to her.
When we had finished I asked Mamush if he could take us to his old primary school so that we could donate two soccer balls to them, he and the children were delighted. We had intended having a bit of a kick with them but the afternoon thunderstorms had come in turning the bare earth field into a mud patch so that was out of the question.
We rose early the next morning wanting to visit a church 42 kilometres north of Lalibela which was on the road we wanted to use to drive to Makele. Yemrehanna Kristos was built up to 80 years earlier than the Lalibela churches and not carved out of stone but built within a cave. The cave having a marshy soft floor the church is built on a floating floor of olive wood panels and the building is a made up of layers of rock and olive tree wood which is stunning to see.
When we arrived at 8am a service had already commenced so we were asked to wait until it was finished so we sat outside and listened to the service which was nice. Inside the cave are two buildings, one is the church and the other is what used to be a palace but now is used for storage.
The church had many windows around the four sides and no two windows had the same design. Inside were many very well preserved frescoes and carvings in the walls. Behind the church and further into the cave was a section where there were 5740 mummified bodies, many were pilgrims who came here to die and others were said to be those of workmen. It was a fantastic experience and one that few people make the effort to make not being that close to the more famous Lalibela churches.
2 thoughts on “The Lalibela Rock Hewn Churches of Ethiopia.”
Another great read. 💕