Meet the locals
I first see them from a distance. Moving across the plateau towards me is a troop of geladas. Tentatively I follow our guide’s advice and sit right in the path of their daily morning migration, spare memory card at the ready. ‘Incredible’ doesn’t quite cover it.
I’m in the Simien Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site of rugged peaks, high plateaus and deep canyons. It’s also the only place on earth you’ll find these geladas, which are endemic to Ethiopia and live in groups of up to 1,200.
Sometimes known as the ‘bleeding-heart monkey’ for their chests’ distinctive red patches, these relatives of the baboon now surround me. My initial anxiety subsides as I’m mesmerised by their charismatic movements and silky fur coats. “Memory almost full,” bleeps my exhausted camera.
The Jerusalem Of Africa
Less than 24 hours later, I’m standing above a crater looking down at a subterranean church carved entirely out of rock. “How did they do this?” I wonder to myself, awestruck.
I’d been anticipating my visit, but nothing could have adequately prepared me for seeing Lalibela’s monolithic, rock-cut churches, which date to the 12th century. Some are well over ten metres high and yet hewn below ground level; others dug out as caves connected by series of tunnels. The most well-known, and most photographed, is Bet Giyorgis. Chiselled perfectly into the shape of a Greek cross, it’s reached by a hidden, curling path and underground entrance.
Lalibela’s churches are a world wonder to rival Petra or Angkor Wat, only with far fewer visitors. Unlike those ancient monuments, they are also still in daily use. I mingle among worshippers and white-clothed pilgrims in Bet Maryam while they take part in an Orthodox Christian service. When the sound of prayers fills the room, I stare upwards at beautiful frescoes and carvings which adorn the ceiling. It’s a humbling experience.
To experience Lalibela’s holy atmosphere at its most palpable, try and time your visit to coincide with one of Ethiopia’s religious festivals. The most well-known of these is January’s Timkat, where devotees are sprayed with holy water in a kind of mass baptism to celebrate Epiphany.
A Monastery With A View
The next morning sees me back at altitude, ascending a windswept plateau enroute to the Asheton Maryam Monastery. My guide and I meander up the rocky path via juniper and eucalyptus groves, and past locals hawking ghabis (traditional Ethiopian attire). We often share the trail with goat herds and schoolchildren.
It’s a steady rather than steep ascent, but I’m still relieved when we finally arrive. Moulded out of a cliff-face southeast of Lalibela at an elevation of almost 4,000 metres, the monastery proves well worth the hike – especially when its monks happily show off an impressive collection of religious relics, books and paintings.
Taking a well-earned rest on the mountainside, I gaze out at the incredible panorama and relish the stillness. Then I reach inside my bag, and fish out yet another fresh memory card…
To discuss further, call Sarah on 020 7359 3938