Lalibela to Axum

Trip Start Oct 11, 2008
Trip End Feb 20, 2009

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Lalibela to Axum

The tour of the churches was very nice, we had a good guide (Kassa) and a special shoe keeper. We decided that we wanted to do the southeast cluster of 5 churches and of course the most famous one "Bet Giorgis". Most tourists start at the northwest cluster and that is why we saw hardly any other tourists during our walk. It was all very relaxed and even the Priests were friendly and wanted to pose (one with Jasper) without asking for money. (This might be because the entrance fee is now 200 Birr per person 100 for a child). We started our walk at Bet Gebriel-Rafael which might have been Lalibela's palace. Bet Abba Libanos was build by Angels according to legend and it has been build around a cave. Bet Lehem was the private prayer chapel of King Lalibela and Bet Emmanuel is a huge 12 meter high monolith with interesting paintings. The last church was Bet Mercurios another cave church with 15th century paintings of St Mercurius killing the evil king Oleonus. The most beautiful (and most photographed) church is Bet Giorgis the only one without scaffolding. It is carved in the form of a Georgian cross and stands isolated in an excavation below the ground so you don't see it until you are very close. Sander: " Lalibela and all the churches are special, but Bet Giorgis is unique" Jasper: I liked our guide, he bought tea for us and he gave us two Lalibela crosses!" Robert will talk about the road to Axum in more detail but here are some impressions: The scenery is spectacular and the 380 km gravel road that passes through northern Tigrey via Sokota, and Abi Aday is actually shorter than the more popular route via Adigrat. We passed through mountains and deep gorges that looked like the Grand Canyon and then suddenly we were back in the dry acacia scrubland reminiscent of northern Kenya. Between Sekota and Abergele there are hundreds of ancient Baobabs, more than we have seen anywhere else in Ethiopia. This area has high tourism potential but as with so many places in Ethiopia totally lacks infrastructure. We were quite pleased that we made it to the town of Abi Aday at 5.00 PM only to be turned away at 3 different hotels! So we decided to camp in the bush again and at the last minute before dark (6.30 PM) we found a beautiful spot on a hill and spend a quiet night. We left early and reached Adwa at around 9.30 AM, Axum was only 20 km away so we continued and had breakfast in the Yeha Hotel with a good view of the main Stellae field. By now we were in need of a bit of pampering so we checked into the best hotel (Remhai) which has a swimming pool. Axum does have a lot of historical sights, one of them being the church of St Mary of Zion where according to legend (and all Ethiopians) the Ark of the Covenant is housed. We saw the large obelisk that had been returned by Italy in 2005 (after having been stolen during the occupation in the 1940s) and which was cause of big celebrations in Axum. We also saw Sheba's reservoir or swimming pool, probably has nothing to do with the queen of Sheba but it is a nice lake where the locals can go for a swim. As I said we took it easy today and tomorrow we'll proceed to the Simien Mountains.(PS. Uploading pictures is proving to be a real challenge so please be patient...)

Robert's entry:The Road from Lalibela to Adwa.

At 07.45hrs we hit the road from the very convenient Tukul Village Hotel in Lalibela. Within ten minutes a guy was lifting a 30 liter plastic jerrycan with nafta, to empty it into our tank. Nafta is diesel. With a good 60 liters in the tank we could proceed on our way. The journey from Lalibela to Axum can be done in two ways. One would have been to retrace 160 kilometers, go back to Woldiya, and from there drive to Mekelle, Adigrat (373 km) and on to Axum. The other is the road described in the Bradt Guide (Axum to Lalibela), but doing it in the other direction. At 383 kilometers this would be shorter, without retracing, but probably more rewarding in scenery (and less in road condition?). We chose option two, and headed for Sekota. Immediately the road started dropping away into the plain below Lalibela. In second gear and on the exhaust brake we kept our speed low. The next four hours were spent in repetition; going through plains for a few kilometers, climb up an escarpment and descend the other side into the next plain. The climbs were in between 500 and 1500 meters. We must have climbed and descended about 10 kilometers both ways. But it was beautiful. The road was in a surprisingly good condition, far better than the Addis-Debre Birhan Tannaber road. Only at the end near Adwa it became corrugated, but traffic was heavier there and that causes those weld breaking ripples. Still, due to the climbing and descending, our average barely reached 30 kph.
At noon we reached Sekota. This is in the middle of the area that became the career bender for Simon Burke, Mohamed Amin and Bob Geldof. Broadcaster, photographer and pop star respectively. The 1985 famine that gave the world songs like "Do they know it's Christmas". (Apparently the Ethiopians know, but celebrate it about two weeks later). We made pictures from a mountain pass looking into one of the valleys, and they show bright yellow spots everywhere. These spots are the threshing circles for the farmers. Tens of them in a frame. The harvest had just been taken in and it must have been a good one, taking away a raison d'etre for all the stretched out hands, still begging for tidbits.
To me it looks there are only a limited number of explanations for the way food security and existence in those areas is handled. Either you accept that the population over there is kept as a kind of glorified pets for the combined forces of the Charitable Organisations or it is an experiment in population management by all actors (Government, NGO's, the people themselves) using methods that would disgrace even the likes of Stalin, Hitler and Mao.
In this case the solution can not come from economists (can it ever?), philanthropists (does it ever last), sociologists, the military; it comes from biology.
The carrying capacity of this land has been passed already hundreds of years ago. The deforestation, which surely started on a small scale, must have been extensive already 400 years ago. Four years back, while living in Ethiopia, we did a survey in the Guassa Menz. This is an area that received its first, by now still continued, protection 400 years ago. So by that time long ago, some people had already perceived the danger and reacted to it. In the whole of highland Ethiopia deforestation has reached almost 100%. The single digit percentage that can be called forest is most likely consisting of Australian Gum trees. This deforestation leads to the lethal spiral of erosion, increased (flash-) flooding, less arable land, more cutting, more erosion etc. The people now left to cope with the situation are the inheritors of the lethal cocktail of ignorance, eroded lands, uncontrolled policies on land use, high birth rates. The return they get is paid out in high death rates (at childbirth, for infants and even later on, ending their life prematurely), periods of hunger interlaced with sometimes a single good, i.e. survivable, year. We saw children clearly stunted in their growth, the vehicles we met before Sekota were nearly all Landcruisers. Good cars, but so NGO.
There is no harm in a bit of good sex, but to keep on procreating without regarding the consequent increase in numbers is not good. All the religious people should realise that sex for fun will never disappear (and can never be stopped by laws, by (quasi-) ethics or by punishment. It is simply too much fun. Today's BBC tickertape at the bottom of the screen even stated that a survey had concluded that sex was a cheap way of biding time for youngsters. So stop talking around the subject, but talk the subject. And use contraception.
One way or another, depopulation in this area has to take place. It will happen, if not in a planned way, then it will happen during the next famine, by HIV, war or occasions like landslides and floods.
Only once the carrying capacity of the area is no longer exceeded, land use will be able to sustain a population. If that happens, an effort can be put into reclaiming bare lands. Turn around the system, reforestation, land reclamation, and leaving lands that can not feed people to nature, wildlife. Educate the people, so that they can understand and use the new policies towards a better life, instead of depending on beliefs, handouts and variable harvests. Maybe the people in the West and East have to do the same, once it is realised that economies can not keep on growing indefinitely.

Late in the evening after failing to find lodging in Abi Aday, Abbi Addi, Abiya Day (or however you like to spell it) we drove on until dusk. Even then and later, while we were having diner, people were still everywhere. Walking on the road, through the fields, near houses. It takes a lot of effort to find a place where nobody shows up within a minute. By accident we found such a place, the old foundation slab of a house or garage. On the edge of another descent into a next valley. We slept OK and left the next morning at 6.15 for the final 100 kilometers.
Shortly before Axum we reached some tarmac. This is found in Adwa. The historical importance of Adwa is such that it was the place where the Ethiopians gave the Italians a decisive spanking. Ten thousand extremely brave but stupid (and possibly overheated, homesick, and diseased) Italians were stricken of the personnel list of the Italian army. No pensions to be paid anymore. This kept Ethiopia on the record as the only independent African state at the turn of the 19th to 20th century.
At ten we were waiting for breakfast to be served in Axum.
The Stelae of Axum are a bit disappointing. For the ladies; imagine sitting at the Mister World Contest and onstage staggers the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger on crutches and in bandages. For men; Miss Jamaica shows off in a chain-mailed harness and Miss Philippines has a leg in plaster of Paris. You would feel a bit cheated out. That's about how I felt. The obelisk recently returned from Italy was still surrounded by steel scaffolding, the other one was leaning in a supporting string, Pisa wise. Limping history. There are a number of smaller ones and also a number in a pre-production stage, designed by Uderzo and Goscinny. Obelix-like flat lumps of stone. Most were surrounded by a corrugated iron fence, which did not contribute to the visual appeal. But we have seen it, done it.
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andrew on

what happens when it rains? does the church flood?

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