Lalibela and Gorgora
We arrived early evening in Lalibela after a seven hour drive (of 309 kilometres). We thought it would only be a five hour drive or so, since 210 kilometres were smooth tar, but we were wrong… The last 110 km’s consisted of a climb to 3700 metres followed by a 1200 metres descent on a dirt road. During our climb it started raining heavily making the road slippery. A few times we even felt the truck loose its grip on the road. For safety reasons, Wilfred put the car in “4x4 low” to cross the peak. All together, our average speed dropped to 10-15 kilometres per hour… After 3 hours we started our descent and luckily the rain also stopped when we were half way down.
In Lalibela we camped at Tukul Village, a Dutch owned lodge with a small place for camping. Using the iOverlander app we found a new restaurant mentioned by a Dutch overlander couple and decided to give it a try…we ordered lamb tibbs and fasting food (no dairy, blood and meat, but just vegetarian). It was so good, that we ordered a special chicken dish for the next evening. It was probably the best Ethiopian food we had.
The next morning we met our guide at eight and he took us to visit the different rock hewn churches of Lalibela. It was very easy to visit these churches and luckily for Judith no steep climbs were required (contrary to the visits to the churches in the Tigray region). We started with a visit to the north-western cluster existing of seven churches. This cluster was build by King (and priest) Lalibela, with the intent to copy Jeruzalem and make it an easier accessible alternative for (Ethiopian) pilgrims. The first difference with the rock hewn churches of the Tigray region is that most churches are carved from the top of the mountain down as free standing monolite buildings.
In the morning we visited six of the churches with Bet Giyorgis (church of St. George) being the most impressive and the last church built by King Lalibela and is often referred to his masterpiece (another reason that made it the most impressive, was that it was not covered with preservation covers against sun and rain like the other churches). Representing the apogee of the rock-hewn tradition, the Bet Giyorgis is the most visually perfect church of all; it is 15m-high three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross; a shape that required no internal pillars. According to our guide, it represents the Ark of Noah based on several indicators (e.g. the windows on the ground floor are closed to protect against the flood). From a small hill next to the church, we had an excellent view of the ‘cross-roof’ and the remaining rock that hides it from sight. The cross itself, is also the drainage system (and is still original).
After lunch, which we enjoyed at a Scottish run restaurant on a hilltop on the other side of Lalibela, we visited the South-Eastern cluster. Both clusters are actually divided by ‘the (dry) river Jordan’ that has an actual baptism spot marked with a cross. The first church we visited; Bet Abba Libanos, was different from the others as it is a hypogeous church meaning one can still walk around it and only the roof and floor remain attached to the rock it is hewn from. The next one on the list was the Bet Amanuel church, a freestanding and monolithic church and Lalibela’s most finely carved church. Some suggested it was the royal family’s private chapel. It perfectly replicates the style of Aksumite buildings, with its projecting and recessed walls mimicking alternating layers of wood and stone.
The churches from both clusters are all connected with tunnels and/or man made trenches. The only tunnel, open to the public, runs from the half collapsed church Bet Markorius (based on the ankle shackles found there, it might have been used as a prison in stead of church) to the Old Bethlehem cave (a room used to make bread and wine) connected to Bet Gabriel-Rufael.
Bet Gabriel-Rufael is a twin-church and marks the main entrance to the South Eastern group (however we started at the last church to avoid the large tour groups…). Unlike the other Lalibela churches its entrance is at the top and it’s accessed by a small walkway (a newly build one), high over the moat-like trench below. This, along with its curious, irregular floor plan and non-east-west orientation, has led archaeologists to propose that Bet Gabriel-Rufael may have been a fortified palace for Aksumite royalty (in the 7th century). In the region there are more rock hewn churches, but after a full day of visiting eleven churches in Lalibela we were all ‘churched out’ and decided to drive to Lake Tana the next day.
Gorgora (Lake Tana)
Early morning we started our long drive, at least in kilometres, 404 km to Gogora on the shore of Lake Tana. One of the longest distances we drove in Ethiopia on one day as our average speed was mostly around 35-40km per hour due to bad road conditions or heavy congestion. In other words, we were prepared for a long day in the car… To our surprise however, the last 65 kilometres were also tarred (a milestone that was completed the beginning of this year).
Our campsite, Tim-Kim village, is run by a Dutch woman and her Ethiopian husband Mebratu (although initially built by her and Tim). It is a tranquil spot on the shores of Lake Tana and a perfect location to relax and look back on our four weeks of travel through Ethiopia (and doing the necessary chores, like laundry, cleaning the truck and preparing all paperwork for the border crossing from Ethiopia into Sudan).
Our main preparation was to put all electronic devices into a backpack that were written on the temporary import permit when we entered Ethiopia…but there is a small glitch…we gave a harddisk to Nienke with a back up of all our pictures so far and we seemed to have misplaced our GPS (while on the Danakil Depression tour)…but these two were also written down on our permit. Ah, well we will see what will happen at the customs office…