Roadtrip Day 3: Kombolcha to Lalibela, finding our way in a country without signposts

Saturday 6th January 2018

Todays trip 255 km, travel time 6 hrs 30 min

We leave Kombolcha at 8 am, and head out towards the North. The lack of signposts and dodging the usual fellow road users (camels, donkeys, cows, sheep, goats, trucks, busses, bajaj and single minded old men) make for an interesting drive. As we head north we ascend from the Rift valley. We drive through the cloud cover, through the forested slopes of the mountain ranges, and find ourselves back into the high country.

We come to appreciate this land of contrasts and surprises. The geological setting is unique, and the resulting natural scenery of deserts, valleys, high country and mountains is beautiful.

It is also one of the oldest Christian countries in the world. Ethiopia has a history covering at least 3000 years, and is the home of Lucy, the oldest hominoid discovered in Africa to date.

Also, Ethiopia was never really colonised, the short effort by the Italians (1935 to 1941) mainly resulted in the surprising availability of excellent pizza’s and roads and bridges which make you feel like you are in the Italian Alps.

There is however a severe lack of sign posts, which includes a lack of place names. Often we can only figure out where we are by finding the name of the village or town on the sign of the local bank.

Asking locals for directions proves pointless. The main forms of transport outside of Addis are on foot, with the occasional horse or donkey carts. There are few bicycles and Bajaj (tuk tuk) have only been around in Ethiopia for a couple of years. Most adults have not been further than a couple of kilometres outside of their village or town, and hence have no idea in what direction the next town is.

We end up using google maps to guide us, downloading the maps in the hotel reception area where there is usually some wifi. This does take us down some very interesting, or challenging routes. After following a lovely sealed road, which we discovered only circled around the town but didn’t lead anywhere else, we decide to follow Ms Google’s directions with some trepidation. We turned into a small alley way, between cows and sheep, driving the Prado over what looked to be a pedestrian bridge, and up a deep rutted track. The fact that an express bus passed us (…) indicated that we must be on the right track. Two km down this track it finally turned into a real road.

The Chinese are busy building roads joining up the various cities in Ethiopia, however, at this stage they have mainly focussed on the easy bits. So we can find ourselves driving at high speed on a nice piece of flat tarmac road, to then hit a big ditch and dirt prior to crossing a concrete bridge. Or we go from driving onto smooth tarmac in the valleys to deep ruts of tracks winding up and down steep slopes.

The high country is very different from the rift valley, it is alpine and dry. There is very little vegetation, and the vegetation present is stunted. People are working in the fields, between the small flocks of sheep and the donkeys and cows. No tractors, no modern machinery. The houses tend to be small round huts, although along the road concrete square houses are in various stages of construction. Schools are very visible, always painted a bright greenish blue colour, often single story structures in dusty yards.

We arrive in Lalibela in the early afternoon and enter a massive traffic jam. The roads are packed with pilgrims, busses, trucks carrying more pilgrims, and flocks of sheep, cows and goats ready for the Christmas celebrations. Our guide Shamel meets us at the hotel and we go with him for a walk around town.

Ethiopia still uses the Julian calendar. So Christmas is on January 7th, and today is Christmas Eve. (Another “benefit” of this calendar is that we are all suddenly 7 years younger!)

The crowds in Lalibela are building up. The views are biblical, a shepherd carrying one of his goats while leading his flock. Lots of old men are wrapped up in white robes, holding wooden staffs. Some people have been walking for days. Lalibela is the spot to celebrate Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, Lidet.

As we walk around we follow the general stream of people heading towards the famous rock hewn churches, to spend the night praying. Hawkers are selling their wares on the side of the road; souvenirs, clothes, scarfs, vegetarian food and drinks. There is an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement.

Travel Details and Tips:

Accomodation: Panoramic View Hotel, Lalibela. Nice and clean with plenty of hot water and a reliable electricity supply. Note that for major holidays like Christmas and TimKat, hotels in Ethiopia need to be booked months in advance! Prices are also sky high during these periods, we paid USD 150 per room per day over the Christmas period, and USD 70 for the days after.

Tip 1: Google maps works even if you have no network as long as you download the route when you still have wifi access. It definitely works in the middle of the African country side!

Tip 2: Bring lots of pens and pencils! Everywhere we went school kids asked us for these. Another much appreciated gift are empty water bottles, so keep them with you to hand out to the kids!

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