After we leave Aksum we continue our journey east passing through the town of Adwa. It was in this region that Emperor Menelik II inflicted the biggest defeat ever on a colonial army in Africa, thus saving Ethiopia from colonisation by Italy. Before we reach the next big town of Adrigat we begin our detours to see some of the amazing landscapes in northern Tigray. Scattered sharp peaks rise into the sky out of a sandy, rolling semidesert and perched amongst these peaks are 120-odd churches. These are carved from cliff faces, built into pre-existing caves or constructed high atop some improbable perch.
Many of the churches are open to tourists, provided you have a guide to find the church and pay an entry fee. Often you also need to pay somebody to find the priest to open the door, you may also need to tip the priest as well as paying the entry fee and you are frequently surrounded by kids begging for money or sweets or pens. On top of that many are very hard to reach and can involve climbing sheer rock faces with or without the aid of ropes. With all that in mind we have decided to take in as much of the scenery as we can by driving around the area and to visit just a few churches which we can find on our own.
The road to Debre Damo Monastery is reputed to be a contender for Ethiopia’s most beautiful drive so we take the detour to the north of the main road. Here we are close to the border with Eritrea and as far north as we are going to be on this part of journey. The scenery is every bit as good as we hoped and we have a lovely few hours wandering along the dusty road stopping frequently to take in the views and to take photos. The monastery is perched high on a rocky mesa and we’re sure there would be even more amazing views from there but we give it a miss. For a start it is for men only and then there is the ascent which includes scaling a sheer 15m cliff. Even with a rope to pull yourself up and a rope around your torso so the priests can help haul you up it would still be an extremely strenuous and nerve wracking climb.
The land is dry and dusty with rocks scattered everywhere. Houses are constructed from carefully selected and laid rocks and the roof is covered in soil and grass, great insulation. Slopes are terraced and ripe yellow wheat creates patterns between the dusty brown rocks and scattered green shrubs. The road winds through the hills and we pass deep gorges, scattered settlements, haystacks perched on bare rocky slopes and churches on top of rocky hills surveying the scene below.
After hours driving around that magical area we finally reach the town of Adrigat. Its not a very interesting town but 4km south of the town there is a nice lodge on a hill top and they allow camping out the back of the rooms. We enjoy a sunset drink looking across the valley to the next ridge where there is yet another church with a commanding view.
South from here are hundreds of churches and a couple of choices on which road we take to continue. The scenery south of Megab sounds particularly interesting and there are a couple of reasonable sounding accommodation options in that area so we are headed that way but first we want to visit the Medhane Alem Kesho Church. Its not far south of the turn we want to take and is fairly easily accessible so we think we can find it without a guide. Once we leave the main road we pass stone huts, some with goats grazing on the roof, flat pastures and terraced slopes. After a couple of wrong turns on the rocky side roads and several offers of help from local ‘guides’ we find the 4WD track which leads close to the church.
At the top of the track there are Orthodox Christians wearing their traditional white robes streaming down the hill from the church and joining more than one hundred others sitting below a large tree or gathering in groups to chat. We find out a funeral has just finished and that is the reason for the big turn out on a Monday morning.
The path to the church is very clear and with the service just completed we know the priest will be around and the church open but that doesn’t stop several young guys very insistently offering their services as a guide and following us all the way in the hope we will give them a fee. After a ten minute walk up the hill we pause to admire the view over the country below us then walk the remaining few minutes to the church which is hewn out of the rocky hilltop.
After we pay our fee we are allowed to enter the church. Daylight shines through the doorway and windows to a narrow entrance hall but once through the inner door there is very little light apart from our torch. The interior is also roughly hewn but there is an elaborately carved coffered ceiling.
Back on the main road we make our way through Hawzien and Megab to the Gheralta area. Here we find another lodge who will allow us to camp and best of all they are perched on a hill with awesome views. Paul will be able to take sunrise photos and I won’t even have to get out of bed!
Later in the afternoon we head out for some exploring. We find a small track leading into the heart of a range of hills and we follow it to see what we can see. We are more than happy with the wonderful scenery and views of rural life.
We tour around the area extensively the next day capturing more views.
Naturally Paul finds the light and colours best in the late afternoon and just after the sun has set so we are late returning to the lodge. As often happens we can stop the car and there is nobody around but within a very short time there are people clustered around the car or intently watching Paul while he is taking photos.
Luckily we had arranged to have dinner in the lodge so we join the other guests and the owners at the table and share stories of travels and sights in Ethiopia. As we are leaving very early in the morning we say our farewells to the hosts after dinner, they didn’t charge us for staying so we just need to settle up for our meal and drinks. We see the sun rise as we are leaving and just a short distance down the road we reach a spot Paul has seated for an early morning panorama.
It is still early and we don’t have far to go today so we backtrack to Hawzien as they have their weekly market today. Its a bustling place with lots of colour and activity.
Back on the road south we pass the white painted church of Dugem Selassie before we reach the last of the Tigray churches we plan to visit, the 10th century church of Abraha We Atsheha. Its a large cruciform shaped church with cruciform pillars and well preserved 17th and 18th century murals as well as a wonderful wooden door.
There will be more churches further on in our journey but in the meantime we are heading for the Mekele, the capital of the Tigray area and a busy university town. We, and many others, are here to arrange a tour to the Danakil Depression, our next adventure.