From Lake Awassa to Lalibela – a Beautiful Country
I’ve done a bit of weekend travelling this February, which may explain why I have not been as punctual with posting as of late. I will, however, attempt to describe the beautiful scenes and countryside I was blessed to travel by both motorcycle and airplane.
The weekend of February 6th and 7th, my cohorts here at Cherokee House – Briana Harper and John Watkin – and I decided to head down to Awassa for an escape from the congestion of Addis. They caught a ride from a friend who was travelling down, and I decided to test out the range of my motorcycle.
I had planned to leave early, around 6AM, but when I awoke it was drizzling and still pitch dark. I thought it quite odd to be raining at this time of the year, but decided to eat some breakfast and see what it was going to do. By the time I finished my coffee, the dawn was beginning to break and the clouds didn’t appear to be a serious threat. I decided to go for it and hope for the best, which tends to be my general response in times of uncertainty – for better or worse.
While I had never driven to Awassa (though I had rode a bus on numerous occasions), I knew I would not have much trouble if only I could make it out of Addis and get on the main road heading south (which will take you all the way to Nairobi – a trip for another time?). Somehow, I managed to find the road with little trouble. My little 125cc bike will only do about 85 – 90 km per hour on level ground, but all the same, it felt like I finally had a little wind in my sails as I drifted out of the highlands and into the Rift Valley.
The drive was spectacular. I witnessed a beautiful sunrise over the mountains, even as it struggled to fight its way through the remaining clouds. Once you get beyond the sprawl of Addis, the countryside opens to fields full of crops, cattle, sheep and people going to and fro. Moreover, you skirt the sides of numerous lakes – Lake Koka, Lake Zway and Lake Langano. By the time I reached Awassa however, roughly 300 km south of Addis and about a 4.5 – 5 hour drive on my bike, I was ready for a break.
Awassa is a beautiful little town in its own right and home to Lake Awassa. Before sunset we made our way down to the lake and rented one of the tour boats for a sunset cruise. It cost 30 ETB per person (less than $3 USD). There are evidently hippos on Lake Awassa, but unfortunately, I did not see any. People also say you should not swim in the lake because the water is not clean, but after doing some sample tests by scooping a bit in my hand and examining it, I determined it was fit to swim in. Swimming alongside our row boat, with the mountains at our back and the sun setting in the west was about as close to Tillery (Lake Tillery, NC that is) as I’ve been in a while.
The next morning Briana and John went to the fish market where the fishermen bring in a fresh harvest each morning and fry it for you on the spot. While I did not go with them (I had some work to do at Selam Awassa Business Group), I’ve been before, and I can vouch for the quality of the fish and the experience in general.
The next weekend, February 14th and 15th, I travelled to Lalibela and saw some of some of the most amazing churches I have ever, and probably will ever, see. Unfortunately, I was not able to travel to Lalibela on my motorcycle. I had only limited time and my mother was travelling with me. They say it is a two day bus ride from Addis, and I do not doubt that for a second. While I am not sure of the exact distance, it appears on a map to be about twice as far as Awassa, though to the north rather than the south. Heading north from Addis means rough, rocky, mountainous terrain. Thus, the roads are not as good and the drive much tougher.
Lucky for us, we were travelling on Ethiopian Air. They call the flight to Lalibela the ‘milk run,’ because before reaching your destination you stop at small airports in Bahir Dar and Gonder. It was a special treat to stop over in Bahir Dar as I got to see Lake Tana, the biggest lake in Ethiopia and the headwaters of the Nile, from the air. Even with the stops, the flight was only about two hours.
Lalibela is considered sacred land and is known for the magnificent churches built during the reign of King Lalibela in the 11th century. My words will certainly not do them justice, so I hope you visit the ‘Lamp Post Photos’ link at the right to get a feel for what I am talking about. The churches are carved down into the ground, probably 35-40 feet deep. It is hard to comprehend how someone could do this work, much less in the 11th century. The architecture is stunning – crosses in the windows and the ceilings, and murals carved on the outside of the churches. The ceilings inside are arched and enormous pillars provide the main support. Keep in mind that the entirety of the church was carved out of the stone – the masons did not simply dig an enormous hole and build churches from the ground up, they carved them out of the ground as they went. The doors are made of Olive wood and most are original – meaning 900 years old.
Legend has it that the churches were completed with the help of angels in a mere twenty four years (if my memory serves me correctly on that last stat). At first I was skeptical, but after seeing the churches, I believe that is the only explanation – that they were completed with the help of angels. The churches are absolutely incredible and unfathomable works of art.
The town of Lalibela offers little beyond the churches, but I certainly enjoyed it. The mountains in the north are steep and impressive and the air is clean and crisp. At times the mountains reminded me a bit of the Rocky Mountains (though not quite as majestic) in the American West and then all of a sudden a huge ridgeline/ canyon would pop out of nowhere which appeared to more closely resemble the Grand Canyon. We stayed at Tukul Village, a nice hotel styled in the manner of traditional housing in that area – two story circular huts out of stone. Our room was 550 ETB (roughly $50 USD) per night. Generally, I would have stayed at a much cheaper location – something between 50 – 100 ETB, but I was with my mother and I did not want to subject her to my sometimes uncomfortable style of travel.
All in all, I cannot see why the tourism industry in Ethiopia does not get more attention. The exchange rate is heavily in favor of the dollar (currently at about 11 ETB to 1 USD), the country is safe and stable, the people are unbelievably hospitable and the countryside is varied and beautiful. Addis may be a bit congested, but the towns and attractions in the hinterlands offer quite a memorable and enjoyable vacation for the slightly adventurous type.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
PS, I am having some trouble uploading pictures, but I hope to get more up soon from Lalibela.