Update 4: 12th March 2018

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I’ve been heading south from the Eritrean border for three weeks now, so thought it was time to show you a bit of life here in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region.

Aksum woman      Aksum man

Gheralta mountains      Aksum fig tree

Adigrat man      Adigrat taxi

Ethiopia is passionately religious, and Tigray is the most devout of all. Churches and mosques are at the centre of everything, and in some of the remotest places Orthodox monasteries have been cut out of solid rock. (Click any photo to enlarge; click again to enlarge further.)

Debre Damo      Monastery village

I made a detour from the main road to a monastery that seemed purpose-built to keep visitors at bay. Debre Damo sits on the summit of a great table mountain. Legend has it that the original monks were whisked to the top by a serpent and an angel, but today it can only be reached by shimmying up the 50-foot cliff. A monk kindly passed me down a rope, but it was greasy and slippery from years of use, and if he hadn’t been yanking me from above I certainly wouldn’t have made it.

Serpent and angel      Climbing today

I came out onto a flat plateau (second above, right), complete with village and grazing bulls. Apparently they pull the bulls up by rope too. Sixty monks live there, but for 1,000 years no women have been allowed! They drink rainwater from cisterns cut out of the rock, and are completely self-sufficient. Their centrepiece is a church (below, left), supposedly the oldest in Africa.

Upper church      Lower church

I was all ready to camp, but instead a monk took me to their guesthouse – a stone room with an earth floor next to the church. It was already occupied by some Ethiopian pilgrims, so was quite a squeeze. If you’re a truly devout pilgrim you don’t eat or sleep, but join the monks in reciting incantations and chanting, which goes on for most of the night. I wasn’t a devout pilgrim, so just lay in my sleeping bag, listening to the surreal performance filling the air.

Priest      Top of cliff

After stocking up with supplies in Mekele, I climbed a pass called Alaji which caused some difficulties for Queen Victoria’s troops. The expedition’s artist Frank James wrote, “It is anything but refreshing when pumping up the hill to find dead mules in various stages of decomposition. To stuff one’s handkerchief into one’s mouth is suffocation, but to breathe is a certain rendering up of one’s breakfast!”

Alaji Pass in 1868      Alaji Pass today

Then, like Frank James, I pressed on south through the villages. Time and again I’ve been amazed at people’s kindness – pointing the way, and inviting me into their houses for food and drink.

Adish couple      Baking 'injera'

This week I’ll leave the Tigrayan-speaking region, and for the rest of the walk people will be talking to me in Amharic. Something on top of the other challenges!

Village family      Village man

Coming over a ridge, I had my first sight of Lake Ashenge, shimmering blue in the distance. This is a place where every traveller stops and takes a breath, and was the subject of Frank James’s perhaps most evocative painting. To get the perspective he wanted he rode some way off the line of march, to a hillside village which today is called Adish. What must people have thought as he sat there with his easel and watercolours? Probably much the same as they thought of me with my camera, fussing to find the right viewpoint.

Lake Ashenge in 1868      Lake Ashenge today

Here I’ll start the most difficult part of the walk. Luckily a lovely man called Gebru Berhe (below, right) has offered to come with me for this final 16-day push over the mountains to Magdala. He knows the route, and on Saturday we’ll buy a donkey to carry our supplies.

Ashange girl      Gebru and JP

There’s no internet in the mountains, but I’ll write again in April.

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