BY: MARIO GERTH
PHOTOS BY: MARIO GERTH
Dessda, our chocolate brown donkey is scratching with her hooves in dry sand. On her back we arrange our luggage and equipment for the next four weeks. We are ready. And we are nervous. None of us has ever travelled such a long distance on foot. We estimate 350 miles, maybe more.
Just before the sun scratches the mountains, we leave the rock-cut churches around Lalibela, a small village-like city in the mountains, north of Ethiopia. It is said that a visit to this place may give luck to the following seven generations of your families and friends. We would like to share this blessing with you.
Just after Lalibela we feel like we have travelled to a different time. Mountains are called Golgotha and Sinai. The river in front of us, Jordanus, murmurs softly. People have names like Jerusalem or Nazareth. An old ancient world, which has disappeared a long time ago in Israel, is still alive here, far from our world.
It could be Joseph, I think, while our donkey’s guide Dessi walks easily next to me. My breath is heavy and I am feeling cold. Dessi never loses his beaming smile. It is honest and bright, leads us through the desert for days like once the star leading the three kings to Jerusalem.
In the highlands above 3,200 m altitude, here the nature is at its best. We are surrounded by wide-open spaces, green fields with bubbling streams, grazing cows, jumping goats and shepherds. People live in round grass-roof huts, feed their cattle or bring grain to the mill. Judah and Jacob work with their oxen and iron plow the fields after exactly the same principle that we have seen in 3,000-year-old cave paintings. James and his brothers chatter under massive trees.
Sometimes we hear someone screaming, “Ferenji” (Foreigner) and our eyes seek for the source of the voice. The clothing of farmers and kids merge perfectly with the warm colours of nature and it makes it difficult to identify the person in a wide-open field. Once we find the voice and the waving hand, it´s like finding the missing puzzle piece.
With every mile we leave the modern world and immerse ourselves in a world that hasn’t changed for 3,000 years, if at all.
Our curiosity makes us keep walking further and further, day in and day out. We start some days at four o´clock in the morning and arrive late in the evening at a small round hut, at a strange place, with strange people. But here you greet each other like long lost children. Here you invite strangers as Abraham did in the Bible, farmers advertise food with woven baskets in front of their house and with a wooden jar of the home-brewed beer called Talla. We join in this life and enjoy an unmatched hospitality.
Halfway through our hike, we are in one of the most isolated and untouched areas of Ethiopia and Africa. We are experiencing old rituals such as the feet-washing, we sleep on animal skins, drink water from the river and collect wild honey and lemon thyme for delicious tea. We exchange goods – our sandals for fresh milk or a copper bracelet for half a chicken.
Everywhere is the spicy scent of smoke spread over the country. Smoke from wood coals, from the dunk-fire of the cows that heats houses, the smell of coffee or the typical flat bread called Injera.
Step by step we get closer to Lake Tana, walking all the time through the mountain wilderness of a high mountain desert. It´s shortly before the rain season starts – the driest time of the year. To find fresh water is almost impossible. And we need a lot – especially for the mules, and over the last few days, we added two donkeys as well.
Water … the highest good, the source of life, not only on our trip, but also throughout Ethiopia. In Bahir Dar, a town on Lake Tana, where once Virgin Mary wintered and has felt at home we gather new strength and as much water as we need. Behind us 250 miles, in front of us the highest mountains of the country, Simien Mountains and 100 miles more.
Days later we wander along break edges and reach the highest plateaus on 4,400 m – the top of northern Africa. While walking it is considered to never look back as with the downfall of Sodom and Gomorrah. We walk uphill for hours, like on a ladder, which once appeared to Jacob in his dream. Even at this level we meet shepherds who appear to us like angels on the clouds in the middle of Ethiopia.
Otherwise, the only thing we could find is the silence of a hundred Sabbaths, and looking back to our first day in Lalibela, it´s almost unbelievable our trek once started with a single step.