Gebre, our guide, was getting exasperated. “It’s easy,” he said. “Women come up here with babies on their backs – it’s easy.”
It was not easy. I’d been paralysed with fear for five minutes, stuck halfway up a cliff with no rope, spreadeagled on the sandstone, starfish-like, my hands and bare feet, slick with sweat and terror, slipping from the tiny crannies. Twenty feet below was the narrow ledge I’d set off from; 1,000ft below that, the valley floor. Above, somewhere up there, was the clifftop rock church of Abuna Yemata Guh. And above that, only heaven. Ending up at any of them was distinctly on the cards.
If the 100 or so ancient cliff churches of Ethiopia’s Tigray region in the country’s far north are difficult to get to, the same could have been said until very recently for the area as a whole. Remote and mountainous, it was blighted by civil war from the 1970s until the 1990s, and in the 1980s was also the centre of the famine that horrified the world. Since then, any tourists who do venture north of Addis Ababa tend to stop at the country’s headline attraction, Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches, rather than carrying on to Tigray.
But a new chain of community-run hedamos (guesthouses) dotted through the gloriously stark landscape of mesas and deep ravines, means that Tigray, with its rock churches, its pastoral culture unchanged for millennia and so much besides, is now more easily accessible to trekkers. Built by NGOs, the guesthouses are basic (but often with astounding views) and treks can be bookended by stays at two luxury lodges, the Agoro at Adigrat and the Gheralta near Hawzen.
We had planned a three-night, four-day walk of about 40 miles, setting off from Agoro, the first of the luxury lodges, built in 2011 just outside the town of Adigrat. Our group was made up of four British walkers, Endele Teshome, our guide from Addis, and the two donkeys we’d hired to carry our luggage, for where we were going there were no roads.
We climbed, through forests of eucalyptus, the floor carpeted with wild sage, the fragrance kicked up by the donkeys’ hooves, the thin air 6,000ft above sea level making us work hard. A mule train came the other way, carrying grain to Adigrat.
After a couple of hours, we reached the top of the ridge. Spread before us was a landscape of such epic scale and grandeur that it took a while to take it all in: vast canyons for miles, and buttes and mesas topped with juniper forests, with the ragged, shark-teeth Adwa Mountains forming the backdrop, like some lost world imagined by Hollywood animators.
On the edge of the escarpment, we sat under a giant wizened olive tree and looked out, the soundtrack of this world drifting up to us in snatched fragments: children laughing; a howling dog; a woman’s voice, sensual, singing softly. We descended and walked along the valley floor, through villages of stone Tigrayan tukul houses, past people in white robes winnowing maize by hand, or threshing millet with pairs of oxen. Clear springs fed fields of onions and cabbages, and everywhere we went, we were trailed by a coterie of small giggling children. Everyone waved at us, smiling. “They will not have seen too many outsiders before,” said Endele. It was a scene, he added, that would have been little changed since biblical times.
He pointed out the birds as we went – the black-winged lovebird and the white-cheeked turaco (both endemic), the African firefinch and cinnamon-breasted bee-eater; brilliant flashes of colour, all completely tame. A troop of gelada monkeys watched us from a giant fig tree. There was a real sense of Shangri-La about these Tigrayan valleys.
The path rose again. After an hour we reached a door in the mountainside. Endele disappeared and returned with a priest, with silver hair and chaotic teeth. The door was unlocked and we entered a cave. In the gloom, I could make out carved sandstone Aksumite pillars, a barrel-shaped knave and pews of rock. Covering the walls were frescoes in primary colours depicting familiar scenes from the Bible but with the unfamiliar twist for a westerner such as me that all the faces were African.
According to Endele, nobody is really sure why Tigray’s churches were carved into cliff faces. Just as nobody really seems to know when they were built, with guesses ranging from the fourth century – when what was then the Kingdom of Aksum became one of the world’s first official Christian states – to the ninth, making them older than the churches of Lalibela, 150 miles to the south. Until the mid-1960s, when the churches were first chronicled, they were almost unknown outside Tigray – even to Ethiopians. But in many ways, the mystery only deepens the sense of wonder about Ethiopia, the only African state never colonised.
“Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion,” wrote 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, “the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.”
We walked on, along the rim of the mountains, the sun starting to fall, gradually turning the sandstone from vermilion to ochre. A Verreaux’s eagle was being mobbed by a dozen ravens, the whole like some graceful dogfight. Right at the end of the ridge, the only man-made structure for miles, and inches from the cliff edge, was the hedamo at Enaf. A simple stone building of rooms set around a courtyard, based on the traditional Tigray farmhouses, it had been built by two NGOs, Adigrat Diocese Catholic Secretariat and Tesfa Community-based Tourism. Dinner was cooked on an open fire and served by villagers who run the guesthouse as a co-operative. After the meal, tired from the five hours of hard walking, and with no electricity to provide night-time distractions, there was nothing to do but drift off into the deepest kind of sleep on mats laid on traditional mud beds, listening to the wind howl.
The next day we walked across rolling plains of golden teff (Ethiopia’s staple grain for making injera bread), spiked with cypress trees, the whole scene redolent of Tuscany. Then along valleys of giant candelabra cactus and aloe, riven with sparkling brooks, so visually perfect and ordered that they looked as if they had all been formally landscaped. Following tracks walked by Tigrayan highlanders for millennia, we climbed up escarpments, eyed by rock hyraxes, golden eagles soaring on the thermals, and along narrow, crumbling ledges with sheer drops and, every few hours, in the middle of nowhere, came across a church door in a cliff wall. There was always a priest and nearly always a congregation, usually just one or two men, eager to commence a four-hour mass. After another long day of walking, we reached the hedamo at Gohgot, tucked at the foot of a large sandstone bluff.
On our third day, crossing the Shimbrety plateau, we were invited inside a sheep farmer’s house for a coffee ceremony. In the country where the arabica plant originated, drinking coffee is a serious business, attended by ritual and love. Fresh straw was laid on the stone floor in our honour. An AK-47 hung from the rafters. “They have been having problems with leopards,” said Endele.
The ceremony began. The beans were roasted over an open fire, pounded with a mortar, then taken around and shaken under the guests’ noses to allow them to smell the aroma. Endele told us how three cups of coffee are served in honour of a legend involving three monks. The first round of coffee, called the awel, is the strongest, the second, kale’i, is lighter, and the third, bereka (“to be blessed”) the lightest of all. The coffee was accompanied by balls of barley paste skewered with twigs and dunked into a chilli sauce.
We bought a sheep from the farmer and invited him and his family to join us for dinner that night. We walked to the edge of the plateau and there was Shimbrety, our final guesthouse, built, like the others, on the edge of a sandstone cliff. This one was enormous, maybe 3,000ft high, and the views so staggering and the world so beautiful that even a confirmed atheist might start to wonder.
The farmer, his family, and a group of other locals arrived. The mutton was fried with garlic and onion, and eaten dunked in a fiery sauce of chilli and araki, a potent spirit.
The sun disappeared. The temperature plummeted. We moved into a tiny room, lit only by the fire burning at its centre. Somebody produced tella, fermented maize beer, and somebody else a few bottles of tej, the traditional Ethiopian honey wine. A man stood up and started thumping out a metronomic beat on a kebero drum. “Shall I start this party with my drums?” he sang, Endele translating. “The sunshine is in my room!”
People got to their feet in that tiny space, began shuffling around the fire, clapping, singing, leaping, turning, twisting. The dancers’ faces were now rapt, transported. Then the ululation began, a trembling wave of sound that seemed to fill every inch of that room.
I went outside. The wind was fierce now, banging the shutters. Through the cracked wooden door, I could see the dancers, flickering shadows against the fire. They were singing in Tigrayan, and the only word I could understand was “Hallelujah”.
I went to the cliff and sat down, my legs hanging over the edge into the abyss. From my vantage point I could see for maybe 30 miles yet there was not a single light.
Tomorrow, I would get stuck up a cliff and disappoint Gebre, the local guide at Abuna Yemata Guh. Then I would return to the world; my first hot shower in a week at the stylish Gheralta Lodge; a drive to the airport along the fast Chinese-built roads that have helped shrink the country and drive a decade of Ethiopian economic growth; a boy would ask me about the American wrestling he sees on TV – whether it is real or faked. For only in small, shrinking pockets, such as the Tigray highlands, can this still be considered a country “forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten”.
But for now, I could just sit on a cliff, in the dark, listening to soft voices behind me singing “hallelujah”. In front of me, a huge crescent moon lay recumbent on top of the Adwa mountains, glowing scarlet, like a big lazy grin.
Mike Carter was a guest of Journeys by Design (journeysbydesign.com), which offers a 10-night Tigray trip, combining four nights’ trekking, staying in guesthouses, three nights at Gheralta Lodge and three nights at the rock churches of Lalibela, from $6,450 per person including internal flights