Closer to the Clouds
A three-day trek to the past in Ethiopia’s Highlands.
The donkey came first, followed by two elderly men dressed in tattered trousers and faded cotton shirts that spoke of years of washing.Their shoulders were covered with traditional Ethiopian gabis that served as shawls by day and blankets by night. Both men ambled along with walking sticks, which they had earned in a rite of passage to manhood in Ethiopia’s majestic Simien Mountains. They knew little English but, through hand signals and simple words, they introduced themselves as the local guides for our three-day trek in the Ethiopian Highlands.
My partner and I had arrived in the remote mountain village of Taja after catching an early-morning flight from Addis Ababa, then bumping along in a bus to Lalibela, and finally surviving a hair-raising drive in a dust-covered Land Rover. When we clambered down from the vehicle, our hair savaged by the wind and dust, we stood amid a village humming with people.
While our guides preoccupied themselves with strapping our duffle bags on the backs of donkeys, we breathed in the eucalyptus-scented mountain air and took a long look around. Villagers of all generations carried out their daily chores — gathering wood, toting water buckets, minding livestock. The noises of the bleating goats, squawking chickens and marketers selling their wares enwrapped us as we gazed at the mountain range that enveloped this isolated village.
Trekking in the Ethiopian Highlands had been a dream of ours since we heard about community treks — those that support development projects to benefit the locals. Community trekking first came to the Ethiopian Highlands in 2006, when a grant from an Irish Aid project helped establish Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives — a community-tourism initiative in Ethiopia’s Wallo and Tigray regions. When the grant ended in 2011, TESFA Tours branched out as a private company booking eco-friendly treks with local guides and villagers who own, operate and benefit from the camps. After the tour company takes its percentage, the rest of the money is dispersed between the guides and members of the community.
Out of the various treks offered in the Highlands, we chose an intermediate route in the East Meket region — described as a mix of strenuous mountain hikes and leisurely walks along the top of the plateau. Our journey began at the first of three camps, Yadikulay, set at an altitude of 2,300 meters. Like others on the trek, the camp was comprised of a few tukuls — round huts made of basalt rocks, insulated with hay and roofed with thatch. We were welcomed by two cooks, a security guard, the local priest, and a few members of the community council — an extravagant display of hospitality for only two people, and one that we saw repeated nightly.
After greetings, the two female cooks guided us to our private tukul, an unpretentious room with a spectacular view of the valley below. The beds were covered with hand-woven spreads, their vibrant colors brightening the dark room lit by only a single window.
In sync with Highland living, each day from there unfolded seamlessly into another. We woke with the rising sun and walked until midday, when we rested for lunches of injera (local flatbread made from fermented teff grain) and lentils washed down with strong black coffee. Each climb brought us closer to the clouds, giving us the perfect vantage points from which to witness a lifestyle that had not changed over thousands of years: Small boys balanced sticks twice their size, steering goats toward grazing land; farmers in every direction walked horses and bulls in a circle, threshing hay; and women ambled their ways home, carrying jugs of water, locally made beer or goods traded at the nearby market. At more than 3,500 meters above sea level, we became briefly a part of the agricultural and cultural life of Ethiopian pastoralists.
We fell into a rhythm, with our morning hikes giving way to long afternoon walks amid lightly rolling hills, terraced plots and small houses surrounded by tidy basalt walls. The only excitement seemed to come from the braying of our donkey, and his penchant for going the wrong way. On one walk, the young ass ducked into a ramshackle hut only to be chased out by a chuckling old man. Half hunched over, he kept putting his hands to his mouth, gesticulating for us to come for coffee. Though our day’s plans wouldn’t allow for it, we lingered long enough to see his old loom balanced over a dug-out pit; fascinated, we imagined the time and patience it must take to weave the white threads into the beautiful gabi cloths that are so unique to Ethiopia.
Each evening, as the sun set beyond the farthest mountain range, we sat on the edge of the escarpment and sipped beer cooled by the high-altitude air. The beauty of the environment spoke to us, but we were otherwise surrounded by
silence — broken only by the wind whistling across the plateau. For dinner, we would gather together with the cooks, guides and local priests to eat food we could not quite see while gazing into a fire at the room’s center, its smoke bellowing and seeping into our pores and the fibers of our clothes.
We spent our final night atop a jagged mountaintop, overlooking valleys and layers of mountains cascading toward the hidden horizon. Lammergeyers swooped down below us before spiraling upward with the wind — their flight accentuating the stillness of our surrounds. As the light faded, our warm memories of the past three days blanketed us against the cold Ethiopian night — reminding us that time need not be dictated by the hourglass but by the momentum of daily life.
The three-day trek for two people — including transportation, accommodation and meals — came to roughly US$600.
To learn more about TESFA Tours’ community treks in Ethiopia’s Tigray and Wollo regions (ranging from three to seven days), visit tesfatours.com.
Noreen Fagan’s career has altered course over many years, across several countries and continents. Although she was born and raised in Zambia, Noreen lived in South Africa, England and the southern part of the U.S. before settling in the colder climes of Canada. She is a freelance journalist concentrating on human rights and health issues, and she loves to explore different places equipped with a camera and a notebook.