Lalibela highlands hike

Experiencing Ethiopia’s village life: hiking in the mountains of Lalibela

Lalibela is most famous for it’s rock-hewn churches, the incredible architectural feat that make the town a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most popular destinations for travelers visiting Ethiopia. What is less known is that beyond those awe-inspiring sights there is much to be discovered in the highlands that loom behind the town. In this travel story I will share with you how we went on a two-day trek in the mountains of Lalibela. We saw magnificient panoramas, ancient churches carved out of rock, and we experienced a completely different way of life in the highland villages, where we were invited for a cup of home-made barley beer by a local shepherd family. We slept in a community-run hut; fairly basic but everything well taken care of by the villagers. Where a trek in the Simien Mountains is all about nature (travel story to follow soon!), this experience focuses more on the local culture. If you are visiting Lalibela I highly recommend to schedule two days into your itinerary to make this unforgettable hike.

The people who live high up in the mountains surrounding Lalibela live a life that most would consider isolated. They are a day’s walk removed from the nearest clinic and stores in the town, and while in Lalibela bajajs (Indian-made tuk tuks) sputter around the cobblestone streets, in the mountains the only form of transport besides walking is on the back of a donkey. At night the highland villagers can see the distant street lights of Lalibela light up in the dark void some 1000 meters below their mountain ridge (although only since the past three years; before that Lalibela did not have an electricity network). High above on the mountain it is pitch black, with only fires to provide some light and heat. To see how these mountain people live and work and to experience this way of life for one night is really something special – but you must know that it takes some effort to get there, because the only way to get there is on foot – and the only way is up.

In Lalibela we found a great guide for this trek: Zinabie, a lean young man who spoke lovingly of his mother and who knows his way on the mountain paths. I would say that hiring a guide for this adventure is essential. The trails up to the highlands are not marked and also not always very visible, and without a guide you may get lost. A guide is also pivotal in making connections with the highland villagers: he speaks their language and can arrange accommodation for you in one of the mountain huts. Zinabie organized a bajaj to take us out of Lalibela, and a fifteen minute bumpy ride along an increasingly worsening road took us to the start of the trail. One of the things I loved about this hike is how it slowly takes you through different landscapes as you change altitude. In the beginning you stroll through pastoral meadows with tall trees and streams. A little bit higher up you walk past golden barley fields, and climbing even higher the landscape becomes bare with large boulders and bare mountain walls.

After about two hours into the hike we pass a small settlement. Farmers are harvesting barley, the cereal that is used to brew beer and feed cattle, and tef, a species of cereal that is indigenous to Ethiopia and that is used to make the thin, sour pancakes called injera, the staple food of every Ethiopian meal. We watch the villagers reap the crops with a scythe and then pile them up onto neat round bales. The harvest takes place twice per year, after which the villagers keep half for their own use and bring the other half to the town markets with a convoy of donkeys.

Village kids are kicking a flat football around in an open field until suddenly we see them all run towards a small construction made of wooden sticks and a roof made of iron slabs. “School break is over,” explains Zinabie. A group of about twenty kids disappears into the hut and we can’t understand how they all manage to fit inside. The hut is like a magic box that inexplicably absorbs one kid after another. “They have to run because they all want to be the first to get inside and get a good spot in the classroom.” Throughout Ethiopia we have seen children help their parents in the fields and shepherding flocks of goats and donkeys. While this is technically child labour, it is an essential part of life for families who live off the lands and who have to sustain many hungry mouths, and it is not simple to think about this from an ethical perspective: if these kid don’t work it could mean that they or their younger siblings don’t eat. Farming the lands is a family effort. I am glad to see that there is some form of schooling available for these children here.

Shepherd boys
The single-classroom school that somehow holds 20+ kids

As we climb higher the path becomes a little bit more tricky to navigate, sometimes existing only of a collection of loose stones. Villagers pass us on their way down wearing only plastic slippers but I am happy with my sturdy mountain boots. A whistle rising from far below pierces the air. Zinabie calls back and an entertaining back-and-forth ensues between our party and the unknown man who is so far away that he is not even visible to us. This is how you communicate in the mountains where there is no mobile phone reception: you just shout at the top of your lungs. Zinabie explains: “He is one of the villagers on his way up. He spotted us and wanted to know where we are going.” We are astonished at the stranger’s eyesight and his ability to identify us as strangers from such a distance.

Or maybe it had something to do with my bright yellow pants..? :p

The climb continues. It is pretty strenuous. Of course there’s the altitude (that we are still not fully accustomed to despite our earlier 4-day trek in the Simien Mountains) but it’s also the nature of the trail that makes this hike a tiring one: it is uneven and pretty steep at times. After some hours we finally reach the plateau on top of the mountain range. As we sit down to rest, a man and donkey catch up with us. “This is the man who was calling us earlier,” says Zinabie as he introduces him to us. The fact that he managed to advance on us even though he was so far away just an hour or so before shows how unaccustomed we are to walking in the mountains – or how fast the locals are in navigating the trials. It is like a walk in the park for them.

Once on the plateau the hike eases into a stroll on a level surface. A biblical scene unfolds before our eyes: massive green pastures crossed by gentle streams of mountain water stretch out in front of us. In the distance there are groups of round huts with thatched roofs, and all around us children play and livestock of all types roams around. Donkeys, goats, cows, sheep and buffalo all mix and mingle, peacefully grazing the meadows. This is just what I’d imagine heaven to look like! I am left breathless by the peaceful and serene quality of this scene. It doesn’t even look real to me. It’s more like a fantasy world, like gummi bear land or hobbiton. But of course the reality is harsher than it seem at first glance, as we will find out later in the afternoon when we are invited into one of the huts to see how the local people live.

First we have to make the final stretch of the hike to our accommodation for the night. The villagers have constructed a group of huts on the edge of the plateau where you are welcome to eat and sleep. The locals take turns in guarding the huts, cooking meals, and cleaning. It is a great way for them to generate some cash that helps to supplement their sustenance – think of it as community tourism. It is called Degosach Eco Lodge, a name which can be rather misleading if you associate ‘eco lodge’ with a luxurious retreat sustained by solar power, because in reality it is just a super basic hut and there is no electric power at all. But what it may lack in terms of luxury is more than made up for by the grandiose views: you can watch endless mountain ranges all around and the valleys deep down below from the sun chairs that the villagers have set out for the weary traveller. It feels great to lie down here after the many hours of walking. A lady from the village brings us a meal and some blankets, and we actually sleep a little bit because this spot feels so comfortable.

“Would you like to see how the people live in these villages?” asks Zinabie after we have awoken from our short nap. “One of the guards is inviting you to his home.” Of course we accept this opportunity immediately. We have already glanced at the local way of life when we passed villages on our way up, but we have not yet seen the inside of the straw huts where people live. We follow the guard and walk down for about twenty minutes and arrive at a small collection of round huts. The walls are constructed with wooden poles, the conical roof is made of straw. The yards are fenched with crudely stapled stones that separate the homes from the fields.

“Please come in!” We enter the hut through its only entrance. The interior, a single space, is dark and smokey. A fire burns in a pit in the middle of the dirt floor, its smoke filling the entire space. The only light entering the structure comes from the hole in the wall that is the door that we just stepped through. After some seconds our eyes have adjusted to the darkness and we can see a woman carrying a baby girl on her back. She squats next to the fire and is baking injera. She has prepared a bucket of batter and scoops it onto a large metal sheet that sits in the fire. With her bare hands she spreads the batter evenly across the hot surface so it can turn into a thin pancake that she then stacks on a pile beside her. A scraggy orange tabby cat enters the hut, meowing loudly, and she feeds it pieces of injera which it vigourously devours. Behind her sits grandpa, a tall and wrinkly man, grey-haired and with large bare feet that must have a long history of walking around these mountains. Next to him two shy kids, faces black with dirt. Behind them a fence made with some wooden sticks separates an large ox from this domestic scene. The livestock sleep here in the same hut as the people; the family spends the night on a wooden platform above the area where the animals sleep. Scuffling around the hut there is also grandma. She takes some items from a home-made shelf that has been roughly but craftfully constructed from wood and dirt. “Our closet,” our host proudly points out.

We are offered injera and cold barley beer. I am always careful with home-made brews because there are known cases of local moonshine causing poisoning, blindness or even death, but this here is a staple food and I trust it enough to take a few sips. It is very refreshing and in taste it comes close to a regular pilsener although it has a much rawer quality. Meanwhile the guard has started grinding coffee beans with a mortar and pestle: we are being treated to the honorful ritual of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The wife spreads loose grass on the ground in front of our feet and then starts boiling the coffee over the open fire. The husband is curious and asks us if we also have a fire in our home. We make an attempt at explaining the intricacies of a central heating system and realize that ironically, while fires in Africa are found in poorer households, in Europe the homes with fires are typically the homes of the rich who have the luxury of a fireplace. Various small cups are set out in front of us and when the coffee is ready it is poured from a tall spherical pot. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is an ancient tradition and as a guest it is considered an honor to be served the black drink after the completion of the ritual of roasting, grinding and boiling.

My heart is filled with gratitude. What a privilege to be able to sit here, in the home of strangers who are so welcoming and generous even though we lack a common language to communicate in and even though we also understand very little of each other’s ways of life that couldn’t be more different. It often bugs me when people refer to the common belief that Africans are “poor but happy”. Yes, this afternoon when I thought that these highlands look like a paradise, I might have thought for a second that it must be wonderful to live here. And yes, it is easy to look at this family and envy them for the simplicity of their lives: their family values, the lack of pollution of their environment, the peaceful co-existence of people and animals, the community spirit, their self-supporting lifestyle, and the total absence of concepts like traffic, deadlines, taxes, and burnouts. But it is also easy to romanticize this way of life. Our visit to this humble hut shows us their hardships. To be able to eat they have to toil in the fields, then sit dangerously close to an open fire that fills their living space with poisonous smoke that probably shortens their life expectations substantially. If their harvest fails, they go hungry. When night falls, it is dark and it is cold. If they get sick, they have to walk for a day to see a doctor. To learn how people live high up here in the mountains is impressive and humbling. The contrast between this village and the town of Lalibela is enormous, let alone the contrast between the village life and our own lifes at home.

As we walk back up, a moon rises and a sea of stars appears on the nightly canvas. We stand there watching for a while, and the guard asks “Do you have stars too, where you live?”

We enjoy dinner in one of the huts and are joined by some people from the village. A lady cooks us a warm meal and then two men offer to wash our feat. We decline, but they insist. Our guide explains that this is a regular custom in these regions. Having your feet washed is a ceremony that indicates that you are a welcome guest. People here wash each other’s feet all the time. It refers to the biblical story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. To me it feels a bit uncomfortable; connotations with colonialism spring to mind. But I realize that declining this gesture (much like the disciple Peter) would be rude and humiliating, so I give in and enjoy the warm water that has been heated over the fire. Later we are entertained with some music and dance before we retire to our own hut to sleep. We pile up numerous blankets because the night is cold, and we sleep like babies after the day’s long walk and impressive experiences.

After a breakfast of oatmeal we set off to slowly make our way back to the civilized world. We take a different trail than the one we walked yesterday. We have to be very careful in some stretches where there is no trail but just a collection of loose stones. We see fantastic birds of prey and also marmots. The further we descend down the mountains, the more villages we pass. The homes also change with altitude. Where they were very basic (one might say even primitive) up in the highlands, moving down the homes have more solid structures and are made out of wood rather than straw.

Before the end of our hike we pass an incredible sight: two rock-hewn churches, one of them monolithic (free-standing, completely carved out of the rocks) and much older even than the churches in Lalibela. It is surrounded by crude wooden scaffolding, and it is clearly crumbling apart. This church is carved out of limestone which is much softer and more vulnerable than the solid granite of the Lalibela churches.

Because of its perilous state you are not allowed to enter it, but just watching it from a short distance is already awe-inspiring. It’s incredible to see this ancient structure, an architectural miracle considering the period when it was constructed and completely free of any tourists or signage. Another great reason to hike up into the mountains of Lalibela.

Create your own adventure – Organising your trek into the Lalibela highlands

If you want to do this hike yourself it is fairly easy to organise. I can heartily recommend our great guide Zinabie. As I mentioned above it is much better to go up into the mountains with a guide who knows where to walk, where to sleep and how to communicate with the locals. Zinabie was fantastic: he speaks good English, is very kind and very knowledgeable in the area. We are still in touch with him because we made a good friendship in just the two days we spent together. You can contact Zinabie on his phone number +251 922 627 853 (he is also on whatsapp) or through his e-mail and he will be happy to organise the trekking for you. It will be cheaper than to organise it through any of the Lalibela-based trekking companies because Zinabie can liaise directly with the villagers. It is nice to know that your trek will support the locals because the money you pay for accommodation and meals flows back into the community.

Any questions? Give us a shout in the comments below and we'll get back to you!

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