Just got back from something of a busman’s holiday – two weeks in Ethiopia with my wife Cathy. The highlight was some community-based tourism, a magical four-day trek across the highlands near Lalibela.
First the community bit. The trek consisted of daily walks, with the next village providing a donkey for the bags (v welcome at 3000 metres), a donkey minder + local guide (we also had an English speaking guide from the central CBT organization – see below). Pic right, as promised. Every night we stayed at comfortable purpose-built huts. The community got about 40% of the $600 we paid for the four days, (lots of elaborate writing of receipts etc as our guide handed over the cash) plus about another $100 in the tips we were encouraged to hand over directly (I was less comfortable about this, but we were assured it was acceptable and transparent).
Each day would end with a conversation by the flickering light of a eucalyptus wood fire, with community leaders, cooks, or whoever else was around. The exchange was more relaxed than the structured interviews of a work field trip, with a bit more two way conversation (we were particularly stumped by trying to answer ‘so what is the motor of the economy in London, where you live?’).
And the tourism bit was wonderful, as we worked our way across the Meket Escarpment an hour south of Lailbela – a plateau of flat fertile farmland, edged by plunging cliffs and heart-lifting views (particularly from the toilets at each campsite – nice touch. See pic left). No electricity for 30 miles, so the stars were unbeatable (saw a bright red shooting star for the first time in my life). Great birds for the twitchers (Abyssinian Ground Hornbill? No problem) troupes of lion-maned Gelada baboons, a family of rock hyraxes sunbathing next to one camp site.
But the highlight was the encounter with two priests of the ubiquitous Ethiopian Orthodox Church, pickaxes in hand, digging a series of underground churches out of solid rock on the flanks of a remote and huge canyon. The centuries-old ‘Rock-hewn churches’ attract thousands of tourists to Lalibela, but Gebre Meskel and his younger companion had decided to build some new ones, which they’ve christened Debre Sion. They’ve been at it for a year now, and reckon they will open for services within another year. Meskel has nothing on paper, just a design in his head, with lots of plans to start more churches once this series of underground chapels and connecting tunnels is complete. Initially, their colleagues were sceptical, but now just a couple of hours’ walk away, the priests are hailing a miracle – for how else could two men with handtools build an underground church this fast? Wild.
But these kinds of anecdotes don’t capture the cumulative impact of the walks, the sights and the
conversations. At times it felt like a mobile immersion, and by the end I was quite overwhelmed by the human drama, the combination of undoubted progress and daily grind and above all the beauty, both human and natural.
If you want to go, contact the Lasta Lailbela Community Tourism Guiding Enterprise (LLCTGE). Conversations with other trekkers suggest it might also be worth talking to (or specifically asking for) our guide, the endlessly patient and helpful Temesgen Damtew Tsegaye – temesgendamtew[at]yahoo.com (right – yep, the huts even had beer). More on Community-based Tourism here, but what I can’t find is any directory to help you identify good CBT projects, hopefully including next year’s holiday. Any suggestions?