I had insisted that we wouldn’t need the donkeys - but as we set off into the Agame Mountains in the heat, I was grateful to be able to offload my bag into the care of the waiting donkey drivers. Our journey was part of a ‘community trekking’ initiative that tries to involve as many local people as possible in order to spread the benefit of low-impact tourism. We stayed in basic community guesthouses and were accompanied each day by a local farmer who would pass us on into the care of the next community and so on. The system had immediate benefit for us as we were invited to a local ‘holy ceremony’ - a sort of party in a nearby farmstead - and we were also taken to see some of the famous-for-not-being-famous rock-hewn churches. There are more than 175 scattered around the eastern Tigray region and although most continue to be used as places of worship, there is still an element of secrecy that hangs around them. Unknown to the outside world until the 1970s, there is still much controversy about dating the churches and the artwork they contain, the story of each individual church wound up in local folklore and Ethiopia’s extraordinary history, so that it becomes difficult to work out what is fact and what is unlikely.
The churches were extraordinary in their location and construction as well as their character - each so different from the last - but equally extraordinary was the scenery we walked through. From mountains the mauve colour of blackcurrent sherbet to table-top summit plateaus that seemed to float above the fiery valleys below, forests of cactus so aged the trunks looked like bark and rock the reds and orange of the Grand Canyon…it all looked far more Wild West than my expectation of east Africa had been.
Ethiopia is a country that needs more than one trip to explore it, we saw one tiny part and a part that appears to be radically different from any other part ! So, clearly, I need to go back!