We are having what marketers call a “soft opening” as our lodge is not fully complete, but the works are sufficiently advanced to allow us to start inviting guests. And they have started to trickle up and enjoy our amazing views and abundant wildlife, as well as our traditional, wholesome hospitality. Some positive reviews have started appearing on Tripadvisor!
Most of our guests have told us that this is the best time to visit! That’s because you get what Blaine Gibson – ardent traveller and tour operator calls a “world class” retreat all to yourself and at a rock bottom rate!
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to make a booking.
If you have an extra day in Lalibela, this is a great opportunity to stay overnight and immerse yourself in the Hudad’s wildlife paradise.
I previously blogged about the research of the Spanish zoologists who visited our plateau on several occasions. Their work has revealed to us the wide variety of bat species that can be find refuge in the cliffs surrounding our plateau.
On a rare evening bats can be seen flittering in the skies above the Lodge. But it is below us that most of them roost.We intend to learn more about their world.
Most of the recorded bat species are common around the world and have a wide habitat area. Such as the Egyptian Free Tailed Bat which forms maternal colonies in crevices within the rock.
But there are also a few jewels, such as the rare Long eared Bat which was only first recorded in the Bale Mountains about a decade ago.
Visit to Ethiopia September 2011
Ascent to the Hudad, Lalibela
Our destination is a plateau lying at the top of one of the amazing mountains rising behind the little town of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia. Starting out at 2,500 metres and ascending another 1,000 metres to 3,500 metres, on foot and over rocky ground would be a challenge for any ordinary European. It’s especially so for two septuagenarians but waiting for us at the gate of Seven Olives hotel at 7.30 in the morning are half a dozen mules with as many local men who are to be our minders and porters on the journey. We are a party of nine, three of whom are children under eight years old. The very young and the rather old climb onto the patient beasts and our expedition begins. The path winds steeply up and out of the village and very soon we soft Europeans are breathing heavily. The men and mules press on in leisurely fashion as though out for a Sunday stroll. None of them is out of breath! A young lad is balancing a crate of 24 bottles of beer on a pole over his shoulder. He is not complaining. Everything we will consume on the plateau is being carried up with us.
In a little while we are out of the village and on a rough track winding up and up between small fields planted with broad beans, with peas bearing flowers of a lovely magenta and white; maize and tef, the local grain from which a pancake, the basis of the Ethiopian diet, is made. Here and there a tiny cow with huge upward curving horns grazes with its calf; small flocks of sheep kept off the standing crops by child herders, nibble the fresh growth of grass and herbs. The rains were good this year and the land is green with new growth and the yellow of wild flowers. Brightly coloured small birds flit among the bushes and overhead black kites soar on the thermals. As we wind our way up and up groups of local people with loaded donkeys pass us on their way down to the town. ‘Salam’ they greet us. ‘Peace’. And we realize we do have peace. We hear around us only the sounds of nature; the soft voices of the men as they urge their mules over huge boulders; the scramble of tiny sure-footed hooves on rock; the voices of children. We feel in nature and of nature. One species among many who rely on soil, rain and sun for life. None of the trappings of urbanised, modern living come between us to separate us from the place and time we are in; none of the irritations of western civilisation come to grate on the senses and ferment stress in the soul.
The mountain rises in a series of steps – a sharp climb followed by a flatter area. There are occasional trees and here and there the dwellings of local people, groups of round huts built of stone or wood and cob and thatched using materials the landscape provides. The pace of the little mules and our walking companions allows us time to appreciate all that lies around us. As we come near the top of the mountain it is necessary to dismount because the way ahead lies up a rocky stairway too steep even for these strong little animals. We sit awhile in the shade of a huge tree and drink from our water bottles. The mules are led around a longer way. We pull ourselves up between the rocks; testing each boulder before trusting our weight to it. Its hard work but we achieve the next level and find our mules waiting for us. The path gets narrower and steeper. In places the guide must walk behind the mule, urging it upwards and placing a reassuring hand in the small of our backs so we don’t fall backwards. Scrubland lies around us. We remember tales of leopard and hyenas who live in this designated national park. Then we come to a cliff face impossible for four-footed animals to climb so we dismount and slowly scramble up on hands and feet. We emerge at the base of the final cliff face and see above us a gate. We have reached the plateau.
The summit of the mountain is open and grassy with patches of scrub and carpet upon carpet of pink flowers. At the edge a sheer cliff face falls down and down to the fertile valleys far below. Away in the distance lie mountains behind mountains as far as the eye can see. Above an intensely blue sky with light clouds. The air is crisp and clean. At first one doesn’t see the stout, round huts so settled are they into the landscape, as though they have grown there. We congregate on the paved area in front of a large building which is to be our restaurant. Fragrant wood-smoke seeps from its doorway. A meal is being prepared for us. From somewhere not obvious to us people have materialised to cook for us. We eat heartily and drink a cinnamon tea. Then we are shown our quarters, a spacious circular lodge for each group, with high rafters and beautiful thatch. Our door is of untreated wood and wooden shutters close the windows. Inside are two generous sized beds with warm blankets, a table with bottled water, candles and matches ready for our use and, amazingly, a box filled with a variety of plug-ins to charge mobile phones from a small solar panel. Against one wall is a bench made in the traditional style of rough hewn wood. It is simple, but we have all we need. Our ‘loo’ is ‘out the back’, a well camouflaged pit in a stand of bushes. I feel connected to my childhood spent in a West Country farmhouse. The ‘must-haves’ that so-called progress has pressed upon us since those days have been stripped away; we have the bare essentials and I feel a simple contentment sweep over me. We take a replenishing sleep for an hour or so. I am woken by soft murmurings and shuffling outside the hut. Are the children playing nearby? Looking through the shutter I see the Gelada baboon troop right beneath the window foraging for roots and grass. They move in little groups. The males ever watchful, the babies messing around like human children. I am enchanted by this trusting visit from near relatives. We watch them quietly until they move off.
Now it is time to seek out the rest of our troop and to explore the extent of the plateau. Mesfin shows us the western restaurant built at this point so that future visitors can enjoy the sunsets as they dine. He shows us villas built of mighty stones and slabs of rock, enormous fire-places promising cosy evenings are set into the walls. All the buildings are thatched with an artistry long ago disused in our country. As we wander back to the eastern restaurant, giving the baboons a sensibly wide berth, our food for the evening is being cooked. But first we need tables. Men are sent to carry back a plinth and a slab of rock to make a table. They shoulder these on wooden stretchers. As the sun goes down it grows chilly but soon a fire is crackling below the patio and benches are set round it. Everyone congregates and the food is brought out from the kitchen – delicious pasta with meat or vegetable topping. The ported beers are opened. Then fresh, tart oranges are passed round. The sun has gone and above us the canopy of stars begins to wink. We can see the constellations clear as clear. Shooting stars flash across the night sky. No light pollution dims their beauty. We are warm by the fire and in each other’s company. We may choose to have a foot and leg massage and some of us do. Warm water and Vaseline is smeared on legs that have done valiantly that day and a traditional massage administered by a small, wrinkled man with strong hands. A spirit like Greek ouzo is passed round the men. Soon our Ethiopian friends begin to sing. More logs are thrown on the fire. They invite us to sing. They sing us their songs; we sing them our songs. Then the men begin on a long narrative chant which, we are told later, is the battle song the fighters who repulsed the Italians at Adwa in 1896 sang. ‘Are you scared?’ they ask us, half jokingly. We are not. We are among friends. This is how life should be, I think. No tv, no computer, no traffic, no false light; no stress. Just homo sapiens sitting around a fire at night exchanging songs and food beneath the stars.
At last we leave the dying fire and go by torchlight to our beds. It is cold at this height but the thick blankets soon warm us and we sleep the sleep of the innocent until dawn. Eggs, bread, butter and jam for breakfast and cups of sweet, aromatic tea. Then comes the chance to walk down into the under croft to explore the nature reserve, or to take a route across to the adjoining plateau and visit a church. Some choose to stay at the hudad and drink in the peace of the place, sit among the flowers in the sun and watch the blue-bellied lizards doing the same. Huge crows with beaks like jack hammers fly over to investigate the human activity. Above a pale eagle soars. Merry starlings fidget about the rock edge and we spot several rock hyraxes. The baboons appear again, the red patch on their chests very visible. They flash their eyelids, whether in warning or recognition of their family members we can’t tell. The sun grows hot. By lunch-time everyone is back from their jaunts and lunch issues from the kitchen.
After some discussion, the decision is taken to return to Lalibela that afternoon. I would gladly have stayed. And stayed . . . and stayed. This is life with all the inessentials stripped away. This way of life is sustainable, harms the planet very little and brings peace to mind and soul. The single, most precious gift that the Lalibela hudad can give to Europeans and all people from the first world is silence. An environment where there are no interruptions by internal combustion engines; no pollution from burning fossil fuels; no clamour of stock markets; no political angst; no competition; no gizmos; no stress. Just life. Man in tune with nature; one species among many . . . Heaven!
If you would rather miss out of the austere and canteen-like atmospheres of some of Lalibela’s tourist hotels, there are a few local options that can bring much more taste to a visitor’s experience. Unfortunately, these are not close to the main hotel conglomerations in town.
Ben Abeba restaurant is newly opened. Housed in a sculptural concrete viewing structure, it overlooks a wide valley, and a mountain range beyond.
A choice location to eat is the Unique Restaurant – which can be found outside the Asheten Hotel. This tiny budget “megebet” has a charming staff, and a friendly atmosphere that will cater for those happy to wait for the kitchens single stove to serve its signature pastas and fasting pizzas.
When it comes to traditional eating habits, Lalibela’s citizens enjoy fasting more than others. The vicinity of the churches may perhaps have to do with the fact that one is forever coming across stern looking locals who insist on depriving themselves of food and water close to the point of collapse.
For those who prefer to eat, but want to experience a local eatery, Bayanetu (fasting food) or Shiro (a bean paste) are the dishes of choice, and will have you shun any animal product, making Ethiopia a vegan’s paradise. The Menharia restaurant opposite the Aman Hotel on the main road offers a particularly tasty and cost effective fasting food.
When fasting is not required by the church those that can afford it will swing in the opposite direction and become purely carnivorous, a practice that sometimes lasts for months at a time. The Yemeraha (again, opposite the Aman Hotel) is a good place to enjoy this practice. The dish to try is the cooked Kitfo which will have you eat huge quantities of dry grilled meat to be dipped in a chilly and mustard sauce.
For those that prefer a wider or omnivorous selection, the Seven Olives Restaurant is popular for its comprehensive menu and its alfresco dining and bird watching opportunities. Its roaring campfire provides for a social and atmospheric evening meal, whilst a distinct large tukul provides a warm and friendly atmosphere when the weather is not permitting.
The restaurant is always updating its menu, which is wider than most. Challenged by Lalibela’s remoteness and lack of consistent supplies, it has developed a complex procurement system, trucking and flying food into the town from delicatessen shops in Addis Ababa and as far away as the nation’s southern lakes.
Its new Ethio-Indian menu will soon be launched, the influence of Ethiopia’s friend across the Indian ocean is as old as time itself, and adds to the growing international flavour that the country is taking. Ethiopia’s Asian minorities are quickly growing in numbers. A phenomenon that barely touches Lalibela (There is generally one lonely Japanese NGO staff member stationed in town) But Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese faces can be seen in most parts of Addis.
The Seven Olives’ signature dish is its olive and vegetable pasta named after the hotel’s numerous olive trees. Unfortunately local varieties do not produce fruits for human consumption. A French social entrepreneur will soon change this, and is carrying out feasibility studies to grow European olive varieties in the town and provide new income sources for farmers.
In Lalibela’s Saturday market, you can see the real food of the highland people. Ethiopia is one of the twelve known ancient countries for crop plant diversities in the world. And a few of these can be seen on display.
Teff rains supreme, and is followed by bags of millet and maize, wheat and barley. A distracting array of ingredients and gadgets that are used for making the local Talla beer can also be found, amongst more exotic ingredients, such as tranches of salt from the Afar region, and choice spices from further afield. Wandering the market area, there are also plenty of goats, together with cows and sheep. Chickens politely allow themselves to be carried around like hand bags.
Apart from fields of chilli, the market offers little variety when it comes to vegetables. And when it does these are very small indeed. Minuscule carrots and potatoes force one to question what is being put in our western food that makes it so big.
From the Lalibela Hudad you will see many local farmers carrying bags of food aid from the Lalibela food distribution centre, located down the road from the Asheten Hotel.
Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme was initiated in 2005 and has been developed by the WFO to keep an estimated 8.3 million people food secure. It’s the largest programme of its kind in Africa and involves a multitude of international, national and local organizations that help work through the logistical nightmare of feeding some 10% of Ethiopia’s population.
With East Africa suffering the worst food security crisis in 20 years, Lalibela is currently characterized as “stressed” but please don’t let that put you off from visiting. Ethiopia’s democracy and rule of law have protected it from the cataclysm experienced in neighbouring countries. Tourist revenue is a direct way of improving local lives and will help the country much more effectively than bags of US soy beans, or EU surplus wheat.
The Lalibela Hudad will take a new approach to food. We’ve been carefully researching the local crop varieties and wild plants, local culinary traditions, and designing and preparing dishes that bring the best of local know-how to a western pallet.
An Ecolodge sets itself the task of educating it’s audience, whilst helping the local environment and local communities. In this case, we follow the philosophy that the best way to preserve our wilderness is to eat it, thereby giving it an economic value to the local population.
Perhaps we will be able to go even further, and teach local farmers a new “eco-systemic” approach to growing food, ensuring that the mountain’s wildlife is nurtured and conserved, whilst helping small holders to improve soil fertility and farm productivity. Reducing stresses on both the environment and the local population will allow food with genuine taste to be produced and consumed.
These are just a few of an amazing set of photos of the landscapes around Abune Yosef by photographer Lluís Dantart i Puig (1962 – 2005),
Curator of the Centre de Recursos de Biodiversitat Animal of the Facultat de Biologia of the Universitat de Barcelona.
A new book has come to our attention – a great compendium of plants in different parts of the country. It’s published by Addis Ababa University Press and proof of the great practical work that the institution is producing.
Ethiopia is one of the twelve known ancient countries for crop plant diversities in the world. It has valuable reserves of crop genetic diversity and 11 cultivated crops have their centre of diversity in the country.
Another particularly interesting website focuses on Southern Ethiopia and discusses famine foods together with wild foods.
Researchers from the University of Barcelona have had a particular influence on our work. Research teams visited our plateau over several years and set up camp to document the local animal life. The results are compiled in a report which is available on PDF. Their research focussed on bird and mammal life, and found an abundance of varying species within the area.
The Afro Alpine habitat of the Ethiopian highlands is classed as one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots. For many years the mountains around Lalibela were thought to be an anomalous “cold spot” within the mountains, but this was mainly due to the lack of expeditions in the area, and most of the surrounding mountains remain unexplored by biologists to this date.
As one of the few research teams to visit the area, the Spanish team provided large amounts of evidence for the existence of varying species. In amongst 43 different mammal species, evidence of a number of carnivores was also spotted.
The critically endangered Ethiopian Wolf, the rarely recorded Side Striped Jackal, and the IUCN data deficient Ethiopian Genet are only a handful of the species found. They also recorded the presence of a number of feline species: the African Wild Cat, Caracal and Leopard.
Our Lodge is located at the intersection of several habitat zones, the whole area being composed of a patchwork of habitats, between grasslands, scrubland and forests all of which we are suitably located to explore.
This year’s rainy seasons have been a bit of an oddity. The short rainy season was much longer and stronger than expected, whilst the long rainy season hasn’t yet fully materialized. The churches of Lalibela have been flooded with prayers for rain, as the farmer’s livelihoods find themselves closely linked to the whims of the weather.
The mountains surrounding Lalibela suffer from the pressures of a population explosion and must contend with the devastating effects of deforestation and soil erosion. The effects of which are vastly accelerated during the torrential downpours of the rainy season.
Being stuck in the mountain during a downpour can make for a memorable experience. Showers arrive at great speed, and within minutes liquefy the mountain passes and turn them into bustling torrents. Few safe patches are left, as the entire landscape quickly transforms into one big waterfall.
A great way to enjoy the downpours is under a tin roof, which accentuates the pounding rain and saturates the senses. When the rains coincide with the night, as they often do in Lalibela, they make for an enjoyable slumber, which is seamlessly ushered in by the white noise of the washing water.