Some though not all of the content of this post is also in the photo-essay, Out of Abyssinia
Imagine a day’s fell walking in the English Lake District. Setting off from Buttermere’s Fish Hotel you tread the lake’s western bank before making the ascent to Haystacks. From there you press onward and upward to Great Gable for the mind-stilling views in every direction: Nape’s Needle and Styhead Tarn below, Borrowdale and Derwentwater to the east, Scafell Pike and Langdales to the south, a glittering Irish Sea to the west and – it’s a crackling-bright autumn day – the distant outlines of Scotland’s Galloway Hills to the north. (On your way up, sounds of wind, running water and your own breathing were punctuated by the harsh gback of red grouse not altogether happy with your intrusions. Once, with the thick forest sweep of Ennerdale far below to your right, you all but stepped on a mountain hare to see it streak across heather still purple, its long hind legs powering an uphill escape, its brown summer coat now hinting at winter’s white.) You are almost young enough to be tempted to push beyond Gable, but old enough to see the risks. Instead you descend the way you came; careful, mindful of how easily mistakes are made when tired. Truth is, you had no business doing such a walk alone at any age. It was selfish and irresponsible, but since when did that ever stop you?
Back at the Fish you shower, nap, head for the bar to order Lancashire Hotpot and a pint of Black Sheep. Half the beer is gone by the time the meal arrives. Food and warmth, ale and aching limbs; all is well and life sweet but what’s this? The landlord, no less, striding over to sit at your table without so much as a by your leave. He has a fork clearly brought with the express purpose, showing malice aforethought, of stabbing through the potato topping of your dish – your dish! – to spear a prime chunk of lamb. You watch, gob-smacked, as he waves it in the air while launching into what you have to admit is a remarkably well informed dissection of Bush, Blair and the invasion of Iraq.
* * *
Unlikely, you say, and who can blame you? But it’s not far from what happened to me yesterday, give or take the odd grouse, sparkling tarn and pint of hand pulled. Before first light I left the Seven Olives with Sisay (“See-sigh”) whose remarkable story will be told in due course, to begin a day’s trek in the mountains cradling the holy town of Lalibela. I’d already seen these from above. As Ethiopian Airlines night flight ET 0701 from Heathrow to Addis cut southward through a cloudless dawn sky, I’d stared down on features common to mountains everywhere – sunlit peaks and dark valleys, knife-edged aretes and scooped out corries – sharing the vast, arid wilderness with features less familiar, like the great slanting Toblerone bars tossed down by giants against slopes of olive and gold. Least familiar of all were the plateaux, flat as table tops and elevated on every side by cliffs which, I would today discover, can drop for several hundred metres sheer. Some plateaux are isolated: thrusting up outlandishly from the rocky beds of primeval valleys, sun-bleached and wind-scoured, their sides tens of miles apart. Others are umbilically joined by hairline ridges. From the air, this terrain has the alien beauty of another planet. Now on the ground, I began to sense its heart and soul.
Dawn broke to reveal a vast, slanting expanse in every direction of fell; the olive, dun and gold I’d seen from the air gouged here and there by the darker clefts of valleys dry, said Sisay, for ten months of the year. Peasants still in shawls and hoods moved purposeful as ants up and down the hillside. Lalibela’s octupine sprawl, configured not by planners but mountain topography, grew smaller with every backward glance. A network of paths trodden for thousands of years diverged and converged to link the makeshift dwellings dotting the landscape. Some, evidently owned by men of substance, looked big even from afar. Typically, these stood next to spinneys; green spring-fed polygons on the parched, dusty beige threatening to swallow them. (There are fortunes to be made, Sisay insists, from a fast growing local species of tree now feeding Addis’s mania for construction.) More commonly the dwellings were meagre and windowless; a few stark on the skyline, most huddled into and barely discernible from the hills; though these too stood by patches of contrasting hue. As the sun rose above a saddle in the ridge to our right, our path running due north, those patches above and to our left shone golden. Cereal farming, I guessed, too short of breath to ask Sisay.
Those whose path crossed ours were not the well equipped, fashionably turned out fell walkers of Europe. A few rode mules but most – young children, women and wizened old men – walked barefoot on the baked earth and spiky rock; backs bent under firewood, bags of tef and, once, a huge bulging sack imprinted with US Aid and the star spangled banner. It dwarfed the slip of a girl doubled up beneath it. All smiled and bid selam as they passed. Some tested their English: ‘welcome … how are you? … what is your name? …’ Four elderly women; tall and slender, imperiously upright, burdens on their heads in the way of peasant women from Quetta to Quetzaltenango – sailed past, brown eyes glinting as they appraised handsome Sisay, mocked my pace, and commented in Amharic on the many stops they’d witnessed from below as their easy strides had eaten into our lead.
Sisay, nineteen to my fifty-eight and hillsman through and through, is also tall and slender. And fit as a rat in the way the adequately fed, but only just, of the third world so often are. You see that fitness in the rickshaw cyclists of Delhi and Bombay, stick-thin as a western model; life expectancy, thirty-five. Sisay will fare better, I’ve no doubt, but I’ll get to the why of that later.
As for me, I don’t get up Gable so often these days, and in my native Peak District have grown too fond of easy strolls. Though hardly in prime condition even for my age I was now at 3,000 metres for the second time in six months. As in the Western Highlands of Guatemala I was not high enough to be at real risk, except perhaps through midjudgment, but the going was tougher than for a comparable climb on British hills. I had lead in the legs and a mild headache, and was shorter of breath than I’d have been on the equally steep but lower slopes of Helvellyn or Fleetwith Pike. Sisay by contrast, given the day off by his resourceful boss, could have danced all the way had he not been strictly instructed by said boss on the primacy of my safety and comfort. Two hours into the climb, after a short stop at the head of a ravine, he’d quietly picked up my rucksack, heavy with camera, lenses, tripod strapped across the top like a bedroll, and water; none of these things needed by him, not even the water. Even so I had to make further and frequent stops for breath, at times candidly, other times on the pretext of photographing the impossible beauty stretching in every direction.
It was late morning when we reached our first destination, a plateau with sheer drops on every side save for a thin neck of rock connecting it to a second plateau to the north. For the last half hour our narrow path had sloped gently upwards, cutting a diagonal across the mountain, with dense thickett immediately below and to our left; towering sandstone cliffs, their bases equally close, on our right. As their height gradually decreased, I realised we were on what was in effect a ramp and would in due course be level with the cliff top and hence the plateau itself. The final few minutes were a scramble over scree and steeply banked earth to the sliver of rock, flat at the top but at this point barely two metres wide, linking the two plateaux. Our approach, I saw, was the only one possible. On the far side the rock dropped vertical for twenty-five metres and this was its lowest point. As the neck widened either side into northern and southern plateaux, the sheer drop of the edges increased. Access to the northern plateau was open but that to our plateau prevented by Africa’s answer to blackthorn, spikily impenetrable, its one gap guarded by coils of barbed wire above and around a makeshift door of corrugated iron. Not bothering to try the door, Sisay banged twice on it with a small rock while shouting for Desta, then squatted on his heels.
“Desta will come soon.”
I waved my hand towards the barbed wire and clearly padlocked door.
“Why all this?”
“There are bad men on the hills. Desta is the watchman.”
* * *
Desta looks my age but I’d bet is younger. He and his men were thrilled to be photographed on the promise I’d get prints to him via Sisay. He offered tea. I’d have preferred coffee – we’d set off too early for my morning fix – but knew better than to say so when the chances were he’d have none and be sad, not in the far east sense of losing face, but because he’d want his new friend happy in every way. The smoky gloom of the hut was pierced, to the delight of my photographer’s eye, with angular shafts from unglazed windows with crude wooden shutters thrown back against the outer wall. The inner walls were bare stone and unmortared, like the dry stone walls of the English countryside. Furniture was primitive. Stones around the fireplace may have been low stools but the men squatted on their heels in the way few westerners beyond infancy – our calf muscles taut from shoe-wearing, our spines slumped by tens of thousands of hours on and in chairs – can emulate. In the corner furthest from the light a table was covered with tools for farming and building, ancient cans and bottles, and piles of coarse cloth that told me some of the men sleep here. Desta lowered a blackened kettle onto a log fire ringed by stones on the earthen floor where Sisay, who had been greeted like a favourite son, knelt to blow the embers into a bright glow. After the pleasantries were done with, courtesy of Sisay’s very good English and equally good social skills, I left them to trade gossip in their own tongue, stepping out into the sunlight to explore the plateau.
The flatness all around showed Africa’s savannah in microcosm: a cracked patchwork of baked earth weaving in and around coarse grassland interspersed with gnarled trees barely taller than me: all of it self contained in this worldette in the sky. It wasn’t hard to envisage Lucy and her kind, newly emerged from the forest to patrol this terrain, perhaps entertaining in those small but evolving crania ideas of better days ahead. (Fanciful, yes, but the drama of this landscape is conducive to flights of imagination.) Eight hundred metres north to south, five hundred east to west, the plateau was roughly oval and dotted here and there with traditional huts of varying size and shape; some small and circular, the larger ones rounded rectangles. Several were still under construction though the one workman I could see, close to the plateau’s western edge, looked to be farming. Ignoring the huts for now, I was drawn to the eastern cliffs, whose views I guessed – though they’d been obscured all morning by that eastern ridge and the plateau itself – must be stupendous.
As indeed they were. For the second time in a week I stared down on Northern Ethiopia in the large, as I had from the cabin of flight ET 0701, but now with the added frisson of vertigo. I’ve a fair head for heights but my imagination ran riot as I took in the extent of the drop, inches from where I’d planted my Doc Martins. The mind can do funny things in such places, its reasoning power hijacked by a dreamlike superstition in which we are robbed of control over our limbs. For a fleeting moment we sense – it’s more than just an idea – the inexorable movement of one leg followed by the other as they step out like Mickey Mouse’s, sleepwalking into thin air.
The sensation passed. I assembled my tripod and fitted a neutral density filter to the wide angle lens, though I knew my pictures couldn’t come close to capturing the thousand square miles of arid grandeur spread before me. For the next few minutes I was engrossed, childishly gratified by the crisp snap of my shutter in the high altitude silence. The shots taken – not one, I noted, at a speed low enough to warrant the tripod – I took a step back, detached the camera from it and set it down well away from the edge. Even tripods might get the wrong idea about heights.
I beat a path inland for the shortest route to the southern cliffs. Just this side of them a clearing was part obscured by thick brush. On its far side was a troupe of gelada baboons: two mothers, each with youngster on her back as she moved across the cliff top in a slow loping gait, and one alpha male with that livid, blood red triangle stamped on his snow white chest. I was downwind but they heard me long before I saw them. If they were alarmed they didn’t show it. At times the mothers stopped to forage as the infants got down to play – today it was pretend bonking, doggie style – while the male sat majestically aloof, metres away from and seemingly oblivious of consorts and offspring alike. Not that I wanted to put that indifference to the test. He was big enough and no doubt fast enough to tear me apart in seconds should he get it into his head I was lusting after his females or posing a threat to the little’uns.
I edged around the clearing but soon saw I could just as well stride across it; the effect was the same. They remained unconcerned until I was fifty metres off, then decamped, only to settle a few metres further along the cliff top. Again I stepped forward. Again they moved on. This was repeated several times until it was clear I’d be allowed no closer. We could both move, but that fifty metre gap was a constant. By this time I’d replaced the wide angle lens with a 70-300 mm telephoto. These wouldn’t be award winning shots either – for those I’d need lenses that cost thousands not hundreds, more skill than I possessed and more knowledge of my subject too. I was thrilled to get anything at all though, and knew that when the baboons had had enough of me, and swung with cool incarnate over the cliff where not even leopards would follow, I could turn my lens to the skies for the birds of brown or brilliant hue, and the raptors that can swoop in from the sun at one hundred miles an hour.
Earlier in the day we’d seen an eagle climbing into the sky, still low enough to reveal the object – small, furry and doomed – gripped in its primeval talons.
* * *
The tea was excellent, a gentler lift than coffee. (What makes the latter so good here is the high ratio of arabica to robustica but that also makes it easy to underestimate. More than once I’ve drained cup after tiny cup to find myself weak an hur later, hands shaking like a leaf.) Sisay took me to a part of the plateau I’d not visited. At a hut not yet finished he shouted a greeting to the wiry man I’d noticed earlier as, using both hands, he’d repeatedly raised a tool to bring it down hard on the ground. At the time I’d thought he was digging. In Africa those who work the land mostly do so without shoes. Spades as we know them are of little use. Instead a spadelike blade, set at right-angles to a wooden shaft, is hefted with the vertically arcing movements we use to swing a pick axe.
But the man was not digging. As we came close I saw he was wielding a primitive chisel to trim a window shutter like those at Desta’s place; three stubby, unplaned planks held edge to edge by a cross piece at top and bottom. Standing on the shutter, holding it in place with grey bare feet – which had me flinching each time the blade came down, though I doubt whether sandals or even boots would have given much protection had he erred – he was paring it to size. With each blow a shaving curled away, its fineness proof both of his skill and the blade’s keen edge. After several strikes he picked it up and, with the two of us in tow, took it inside to try it for fit in the hut’s unglazed window. Using a stone as makeshift chalk, he marked the area still to be shaved then put the shutter down to greet us, Ethiopian style, right shoulder curving in on right shoulder like interlocking halves of the yin-yang symbol. For Sisay the half-hug was repeated thrice; right, left, right. For me it was just the once but I got his name, Bekele (“Beh-kuh-lah”). Though I’m not remotely sporty, it sparked something in my trivia-collecting mind.
“Ah, Bekele. Champion of the world!”
I simulated running. He beamed. If I’d only had his name a minute earlier I too might have got the full triple monty.
(By now I’d seen and done the shoulder thing many times and had clued up sufficiently to know I’d misread Abebe’s and Worretta’s intent at Bole International. Each had approached with one arm outstretched, as for a handshake, but leaned in with the upper torso in a manner which, in our now touchy-feely west, we take even with strangers as signifying an embrace is in order. I’d responded accordingly, using both arms to wrap each man in turn in a bear hug. For their part the pair had been too polite to show surprise, far less horror, and my subsequent mortification was not great. This is an easy country. You needn’t creep around in fear of causing unwitting offence. Come to think of it, A & W probably went home that night congratulating themselves on their presence of mind in instantly adapting, as though this were routine, to the faranji way of saying ‘how do you do?’)
Unlike Desta’s hut, the walls of this one were mortared, though not with cement. Sandwiched between each of the multi-sized stones was a dollop of mule-dung, straws protruding like stray hairs from a yokel’s chin. Sisay pointed to the hut’s roofspace: a master beam six inches thick running the length of the apex; four lesser but still substantial diagonals, two at each end; two dozen tertiary beams spanned by hundreds of rough dowels to form a base for the thick thatch which will bring coolness in the day, warmth when starry skies send night temperatures plummeting. I was impressed by its rough beauty and said so, omitting the ‘rough’ bit. Sisay relayed my praise to Bekele, who turned this appraisal of his craftsmanship over in his mind a few seconds before nodding in thoughtful agreement.
I’m no architectural photographer but with both men clearly expecting it – the kit slung around my neck was worth their combined annual income so the least I could do was use it – I took a few shots. As in Desta’s hut the chiarascuro quality of light and shade made things easy, though I needed a high ISO to get enough light for exposure. (I should have left my tripod at the Seven Olives, I realised, and brought my flash gun instead. On-camera flash is anathema to any right thinking photographer, drowning every nuance of light and shade in a blue-white flood. With its angle on the subject that of the lens itself, a golden rule of light control – for interesting light we need interesting shadow – is broken. The one exception is as fill-in for a backlit subject but even for this, built-in flash is inadequate beyond three metres. Given a detachable flash gun I could have lit this roofspace to allow low ISO for zero digital noise, narrow aperture for greater depth of field; all the while preserving its rustic integrity and harmony.) Every now and then I gave the appreciative nod and sagelike grunt of one expert admiring the work of another. I was enjoying myself, though I still couldn’t figure out why these huts were here at all.
On our way back to Desta’s for our stuff, Sisay explained. His boss is working with the Ethiopian Tourist Board to prepare the plateau for faranji in search of something special. With ecotourism taking off, a night in these huts – no electricity, but firewood and candles; no taps, but a well for washing, and men and mules to bring bottled water – will fetch a high price from trekkers. I did not yet know it but in a few days would see for myself that such a night will be unforgettable. Meanwhile I did at least know now why the huts were here, and why – other than cheap labour – they were being built using methods as old as, well, the hills.
I also knew now why those huts were mortared while Desta’s was not. The stones are set in mule dung not for strength but for warmth.
* * *
We said our goodbyes with smiling shoulder-to-shoulders as I promised pictures in a few weeks’ time. Having conferred with Sisay, who assured me it was not expected but would be welcome, I left a few birr with each man. For the next half hour we retraced our steps before cutting east through a gap in the ridge, south of the plateau we’d just left. The going for the next two hours was easy; the first with no overall change of height, the second gently downhill. Relaxed and in my stride, I drank it in. I’d seen this wild infinity from the air and from terrestial vantage-points. Now I was in and amongst it, free to savour it on the move, undistracted by light-headedness, shortness of breath or screaming calf muscles. I was the high plains drifter: muleless to be sure, and with no poncho; no cheroot either, having quit years ago. But I was threading a taciturn path between rock pillar and gorge, buttress and cliff; my eye not on street corner and office block but a jagged, shimmering horizon fifty miles distant. Sergio Leone would have seen the possibilities, though logistical challenges might have put a crease or two on his forehead.
It was mid afternoon when we reached our second destination, one of the extraordinary rock churches unique to Northern Ethiopia, crudely hewn at staggering cost in human labour. Each was created – around the time Norman barons stood with arms grimly folded as King John put his glum signature to Magna Carta – by carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the granite bedrock; up to thirty metres long, two to four wide and fifteen deep. With only hammers and chisels, brute strength and visions of paradise or pay day, their 13th century creators had worked inwards from these trenches to sculpt windows, doors, columns, stairs, interior ceilings and floors from the solid rock. No one knows why such monumental feats of engineering were undertaken, though as always in this land of scant boundary, even conceptually, between myth and history there’s no shortage of exotic theories. These will be set out in due course. There’s more to be said on the churches of Lalibela and its surrounds.
Though this mountain church is smaller than those in town, remoteness make the logistics of its construction no less impressive. Even today, with biblical wilderness all around, there can be no doubting the devotion of hillsfolk who still walk hours on end for a few holy words from a priest who may or may not be a lecherous rascal. Today the place was locked and deserted, save for the lad of thirteen or so instructed to watch over it but given no authority to allow us in. We traded two oranges for a fistful each of roasted wheat berries; tasty enough once we’d picked out the grit and blown off the chaff. I was glad of the carbs.
* * *
Our route now descended more rapidly through pockets of fecundity, with clusters of gnarled cypress that had been growing for centuries, and scarlet flowering cacti. At one point we even had to wade through a shallow pool where water from a spring between two rocks on our right spilled onto the narrow path before cascading over the precipice to our left. We were entering the more hospitable lower slopes. At small farms of no more than a hut or two the harvest was being gathered and processed by men, women and children scything, carrying and threshing cereals I recognised: not tef from the warmer and wetter southern lowlands but hardier crops of wheat and barley. A few drove oxen in circles to trample sheaves in a way I couldn’t make sense of but must have been designed to separate chaff from grain. Some were planning the next crops. We came on a man and boy driving two oxen pulling wooden plough over a narrow triangular strip on the hillside, exactly as it would have been done a thousand years ago. Was it OK to photograph? Sure. But dad, who’d been watching his son at the tiller, now took over; no question who’d be the star of this shot!
Sisay wanted a go. In this bone-dry and rocky ground his furrow was crooked but he handled the oxen like a pro. I turned for a closer look at the father, noticing for the first time his dusty T shirt and the jubilant Michael Owen, frozen in time as he ran with arms high from one of his many defeated goalmouths.
“Liverpool!”, I exclaimed.
“Newcastle”, this African hill farmer sternly corrected.
Ethiopia is passionate about soccer. Days before, walking in the hills above Axum, a boy of ten or so had asked where I was from. England, I’d told him, only to be asked which part. Now I’ve learned that if a conversation in the third world gets this far, the answer most likely to keep the conversation flowing is Manchester. It’s not that far off the truth (Sheffield being an hour the other side of the Pennines) and brings instant global recognition. On this occasion the effect had been more than usually electrifying. The boy’s face had taken on a feral look. His eyes had doubled in size. Bony arms had shot into the air as his upper body threw itself into a martial half crouch. “Yes! Yes!! Win Roonay!!!” After calming down a notch, he’d fished into a filthy pocket to bring out a picture of the very man.
* * *
With fatigue beginning to tell, the going got tricky again on the lower slopes as the path wound down like a corkscrew to a Lalibela in full view. The drop was rarely steep on both sides, but the danger side changed with each twist as we negotiated the angular foothills as a series of hairpin bends tilted alarmingly towards the outer edges. Worse, the ground was a treachery of dust and small round stones, against which the tread on my Docs was inadequate. I learned to take shorter steps, so my soles hit the ground at more obtuse angles, but after a few minutes would grow complacent, risking longer steps until the next sickening skid induced temporary respect. If you’ve ever ridden a bike on cinder you know what I’m talking about. Finally, after many such scares, I lost my balance on an outer edge with the path below turning back on itself almost completely. In slow balletic motion I saw myself tottering on the edge of a drop of three or four metres as Sisay reached out for me. It was the last straw for him. Having asked several times, he now slid the camera from my shoulder and insisted I took the stick I’d stubbornly refused for the past two hours.
Onwards and downwards till we reached Lalibela. Sisay left me me at the main street, heading for his shared room in the town to wash, change and get ready for waitering at the 7-O. Within minutes I was casting off clothes thick with red dust. About to step in the shower, I surveyed my face in the mirror. My nose; damn it! I always forget. I’d thought I’d been careful; sunhat, long sleeves, lashings of factor 40. But that conk always seems to stick out in direct challenge to the high altitude sun: go on then! Now I’d have to watch out for days.
Showered and towelled dry I collapsed onto the bed and into a coma. When I awoke it was dark and umpteen shades of English, in every accent from German to purest Melbourne, rang from the tree-shaded terrace, yards from my door, where even wealthy locals come for the best food in town. Aromas mingling in the evening air reminded me how little I’d eaten. I was ravenous.
I chose kai wat; spicy lamb with injera. Halfway through my meal I spotted Mesfin (“Messfin”). He’s in his thirties, I’d say, and small by Ethiopian standards but good looking and well proportioned. He’s very smart. The night before we’d talked for hours: the Sudan referendum … Egypt strong-arming the region over a Nile that may flow through Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania but is regarded by Cairo, he says, as its private property. Along the way we’d taken in the Iraq war. Having discussed geopolitics at length with Abebe and Worretta, at a swanky hotel by a glittering lake south of Addis, I already knew how informed and swift of thought educated Ethiopians can be. But Mesfin is in a league of his own. After setting out his take on African affairs he’d begun to fire questions at me. Was Condoleeza Rice a puppet? Was Tony Blair sincere in his catholicism? Why had he rubber-stamped Bush’s adventure, disastrous in every way, in Iraq? What did I think of war criminal Mengistu gaining safe haven in Zimbabwe?
(Two mad kleptocrats keeping one another company, I’d answered, which was wide of the mark since, as with many a dictator, power rather than riches was key to an understanding of these men. Nevertheless it had delighted the urbane entrepreneur from a Tigray that endured more than most the Derg’s deranged policies. But the whole country had suffered, and I dare say it tickles Mesfin’s keen sense of irony that the plateau on which he now invests in ecotourism had not so long ago housed artillery against attack from the north, yes, but also trained down on a town of hopeless addiction to the opium of the people.)
Mesfin, I should have said, also owns the Seven Olives. He’d already informed me via Sisay that, as friend of Marion the benefactor – “here she is like the queen” – my thirty dollar room rate had been further reduced to twenty. He had given Sisay the day off precisely so I could safely experience the joys of fell walking, Africa style, and had made it abundantly clear that if there was anything else he could do for me I need only ask.
So who was I to argue when he sat uninvited at my table, tore off a piece of my injera to dip in my kai wat before popping it into his mouth? What, he asked as he chewed reflectively, had I made of Forest Whitaker’s performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland?