Community Tourism, Ethiopia, Irish Times - Nov 2009
Ethiopia’s highlanders live in a stunning basalt landscape of endless canyons and soaring volcanic peaks. It’s a destination that even family-holiday-averse teenagers will fall for. And an Irish Aid project means that staying here benefits locals directly, writes MANCHÁN MAGAN
I MAY HAVE inadvertently unearthed the perfect holiday: affordable, unforgettable and in one of the most awesome, exotic and unexplored parts of the world. This is a trip that will enrich your life and that you will likely look back on from your deathbed with a smile.
Forgive my effusiveness, but this is something special – a holiday in an undiscovered region that is entirely safe and utterly sensational, and will directly and tangibly benefit some of the poorest people on earth. What’s more it costs only a fraction of normal holidays and is suitable for everyone, from adventure-nuts, to honeymooners, to families, large or small - even the most family-holiday-averse teenager will grudgingly admit delight.
The destination is Ethiopia - the spectacular basalt escarpments of the Ethiopian highlands around Lalibela to be precise, one of the world's richest cultural treasure chests, set in a mountain range along the Great Rift Valley where the Blue Nile rises. The holiday involves a series of gentle hikes through the hills, staying with local communities at night in clean, elegant traditional lodges. The cost is €26 per night - that includes all your food, accommodation, your guide, your porters and donkeys. It might not seem like much money to us, but to the local communities, who receive 60% of it directly, it’s the difference between thriving and bare survival.
Now, that I’ve laid out my stall, let me backtrack a little to a man called Mark Chapman who visited Lalibela a decade ago and saw the potential of this elysian landscape of rolling hills, endless canyons, lush valleys and soaring volcanic peaks, as a prime tourist destination. Since there were no tarred roads or any other type of infrastructure in the area he knew that the usual rich white investors from South Africa or Europe could not be enticed in, and this provided an ideal opportunity to develop a genuine network of community tourism sites in which the communities themselves could benefit in a tangible way, rather than the half-hearted, bungling attempts that are often the case.
He hiked out to what he considered was the most beautiful spot in the entire region, a fertile meadow right at the edge of a plummeting black basalt escarpment, and explained to the local community that if they built a few tukuls (traditional circular homes with huge conical thatched roofs) he would bring tourists to them and he’d give them 60% of what the tourists paid, the remainder being distributed to other local groups and used for promotional work and support offices. They were initially sceptical, wondering where the catch was, but they grudgingly agreed, and in 2003 the first lodges were built on the very edge of a sheer precipice at Mequat Mariam overlooking a tawny-coloured stretch of undulating paradise.
The first tourists arrived and of course they were blown away by the mountains and the hospitality and the opportunity to get so close to a culture as ancient and intriguing as this. It’s hard not to be. Their isolation in the highlands have preserved traditional life here to a remarkable extent. It’s like Dervla Murphy wrote way back in 1968 in ‘In Ethiopia with a Mule’: ‘Travelling in Ethiopia gives one the Orlando-like illusion of living through different centuries.’ Getting so close to a culture while still enjoying near-Western levels of comfort, food and organisation is exceptionally rare.
So, what does the holiday entail? You start the trail at various points depending on whether you are coming from Lalibela in the east, or Bahir Dar in the west. Either way, you and your guide get dropped at the trailhead, where porters from the community are waiting with donkeys, and you set off walking the first 8km along a tree-lined path up towards the escarpment, through a pastoral landscape of grain fields, terraced vegetable plots and soaring stony upland meadows, with clusters of mud and thatch farms here and there. It’s a magical land of olive groves, shepherd boys and women scrubbing cloths at acacia-lined streams; of hidden Orthodox churches made from stone and wood, and processions of garlanded priests with gold-tasselled sun umbrellas. Although the land looks arid, it’s remarkably bountiful and everywhere there are men ploughing with oxen and wooden ploughs and winnowing with forks cut from tree branches.
Most people’s reaction upon reaching the first camp is one of awe. The majesty of the location is hard to convey – mountains running on to the ends of the earth and surging outcrops of hexagonal basalt columns rising up beneath you, with just the smoke from cooking fires hinting at possible habitation. Above you are a profusion of raptors (auger buzzards, falcons, vultures, black and white eagles) soaring on the thermals. You are served tea and a freshly-baked snack as you take in the view. Then, while dinner is cooking you head out to an over-hanging rock-ledge for a sunset beer with Gelada baboons scrambling along the cliff face beneath you. Dinner is served around an open fire in one of the tukuls and since there is no electricity one goes to sleep early.
The days continue more or less like this – one can trek for between one and six nights - the landscape and people becoming ever more alluring the deeper one goes. Each trek between the various camps is beautiful for its own reason, but perhaps the most spectacular and challenging of all is the walk up into the remote highland sanctuary of Abuna Yoseph. This newly opened route leads you up through a forest of giant heather to a community-run camp at 3,500metres and onwards the next day over a highland plateau farmed by resilient mountain people, to a 4,300 meter peak in an Afro-Alpine ecosystem of giant Lobelias (massive cabbage-like trees) and rare Ethiopian wolves.
It’s hard to overstate the sheer otherworldliness of the Ethiopian highlands. The mountain light heightens colour, so that the hand-dyed, hand-woven skirts and jumpers worn by the women and the scarves of the men seem to dance with colour. Everything is more vivid: the lime-green patches of sugar peas at the valley bottoms, the umber-walled cottages and the biscuit-coloured tonsured threshing circuits of the wheat fields.
The highlight for me was being invited into people’s homes – ushered into tall, airy circular mud and thatch buildings and offered a cup of milk or fermented barley beer and a break from the sun. Chickens and goats are shooed aside as you are offered a perch by the fire and a handful of freshly toasted grain kernels. There is something indescribably rejuvenating about spending time in such areas – where light is provided by candle or oil lamp and water is fetched from a well, where Christianity is still practised much as it was when it first arrived here straight from Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
The highland terrain has helped shelter this part of Ethiopia from foreign influence, and as a result it is now one of the best preserved and culturally distinct regions left on the planet. The fact that one can experience it directly while tangibly benefiting the local communities is genuinely exciting.
Mark Chapman is aware that a true community tourism project would ideally have no European involvement and he is busily working to extricate himself from the organisation, which is called TESFA. Already, the manager and all of the staff are Ethiopian. Mark’s presence up until now has helped attract vital funding from organisations such as the British Embassy, Save the Children and most importantly, Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affair’s development arm. We, as Irish taxpayers, have played a pivotal part in helping to develop this organisation and now as tourists we can reap the benefits.
Since the people here have never been colonised and have a heritage far older and richer than ours, they possess a sensibility that is almost aristocratic and ensures there is none of the awkwardness one occasionally feels in community encounters, no sense of having to smile through difficult situations. Nor is there any hint of artifice in the relationship between the tourists and the communities – if they sing for you it is only because they are in the mood for singing; the food they cook for you at dinner is local fare adapted to Western tastes, while at lunch you eat genuine highland food. You get to experience life as they live it, albeit with a comfortable bed in a beautiful tukul to sleep in at night and camp showers overlooking the mountains.
It is a rare pleasure to holiday in a developing country where there is no sense of exploiting the less well-off. The local communities involved in this project are thriving - they will show you the grain-stores and wheat-mills that they have been able to pay for through the scheme. It means that their food supply is guaranteed even during the lean times. There is no sense of ‘charity’ to this project; the locals work for the money and then cooperatively decide what the community should do with it. TESFA recognises that it takes relatively few tourist-nights for the communities to earn significant income, and as result they are constantly extending their network of camps so that the income gets spread over as wide an area as possible and that no community is inundated with tourists.
In an ideal world, this would be the model for all community tourism, but whether it would really work in an area less isolated and economically disadvantage is uncertain. Either way, we ought to celebrate the fact that is exists at all and try to support it. On top of the €26 per day, the flight from Ireland to Lalibela (via Addis Ababa) will cost €550 from London on Ethiopian Airlines, and while you’re there you ought to definitely include a few extra days in Lalibela, a former capital of Ethiopia, containing some of Christianity's most important sites - a series of 13th century churches carved out of rock, some carved straight into cliff-faces, others excavated from the base rock. Gary Quinn wrote about it in Go, 24 Jan 2009.
So, does it sound like something special or have I over-egged the pudding? The only fact that I can’t vouch for is whether you will actually look back upon it from your deathbed with a smile - but I’d be interested to know.
This article was supported with a grant from Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund
Ethiopian Airlines Irish agent: firstname.lastname@example.org 01-6633938
Guesthouses in Lalibela:
Jersusalem Guest House, 0333-360047 email@example.com approx €30 a night -
Tukul Village 0333-360564, firstname.lastname@example.org, approx €30
Alief Paradise, 0333-360023, email@example.com Approx €15
Lalibela 0333-360036, no email, TESFA can help with reservations, approx €10