Final update: 14th April 2018


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You couldn’t make this story up.

In March 1868 some 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, 26,000 camp followers, and more than 40,000 animals including 44 elephants, were strung out along the 400-mile route from the Red Sea. Emperor Tewedros had moved his hostages to a formidable natural fortress called Magdala, and the force faced climbs and descents of thousands of feet as they picked their way across the precipices and ravines.

Tricky moment      Heavy load

These are paths made for visiting your neighbours, not for walking hundreds of miles. Some of the drops were lethal and I was incredibly lucky not to fall over them. Local people and donkeys were carrying much heavier loads than me. (Click any photo to enlarge; click again to enlarge further.)

Carrying firewood      Donkey approaching Magdala

Magdala scenery      Girls

I’m glad to say life in the countryside has improved a bit since Lord Napier’s time. Schools and roads have made a real difference, but things are still tough for many people.

Woman at work      Fellow travellers

School sign      Hand pump

Two vital things are water and cereals. Some lucky villagers have a well with a modern hand pump. Others rely on natural waterholes which, as my walking mate Gebru and I found to our cost, often dry up.

Waterhole      JP drinking

Cereals are the number one crop all over the Ethiopian highlands. They’re a special type called ‘tef’, essential for making the injera that everyone loves so much. First a lot of sifting and separating goes on, then it has to be milled into flour, so I often met long lines of people and donkeys carrying bulging sacks towards the flour mills. Each sack is carefully weighed and paid for by the kilo; then the flour has to be carried all the way home again.

Carrying grain      Flour mill

After that of course there’s food for the animals.

Haystacks      More haystacks

Weekly markets take place on the bare hillside.

Hillside market      Shoe seller

Sugar cane seller      Vegetable seller

Finally we had just two more ravines to cross.

Jita gorge      Crossing the Bashilo

The 1868 campaign didn’t end happily. After a fierce battle, Tewedros drove hundreds of native prisoners over a cliff and then shot himself. But the European hostages were all successfully rescued, and his prize mortar ‘Sebastopol’ is now proudly displayed nearby.

'Sebastopol'      Magdala

I finished my walk at the beginning of April, but couldn’t come home without seeing the world-famous churches of Lalibela.

Bet Giyorgis      Pilgrims chatting

It was Ethiopia’s Easter – a week later than ours – and everyone in Lalibela was looking forward to their ritual feasts of chicken and goat.

Woman with chickens      Goats

But first they crammed into the town’s eleven churches for an overnight candle-lit vigil.

Woman prostrating      Celebrating Easter

Deacon      Pilgrim approaching tunnel

Bishop preaching      Pilgrim reading

Pilgrims sleeping      Lalibela sunset

The walk was one of the most difficult I’ve ever done, despite having Gebru with me who was a sheer delight. And the rest of the trip? Well spending a month in Eritrea – which has isolated itself from its neighbours and gets hardly any visitors – was a real privilege and eye-opener (Update 1). As for Ethiopians, they’re boisterous and charming and whatever the frustrations they never complain. In both countries, ox-ploughs and mud-and-thatch houses are the norm over wide areas, and these would have been familiar to the soldiers who marched through the mountains all those years ago. But towns like Gonder and Lalibela are a joyous mix of ancient and new. If you haven’t been to this part of the Horn of Africa, you’re missing a treat.

This is the last ‘Abyssinian Difficulty’ update. John will be back in the UK on 23rd April 2018.

Other updates

31st December 201723rd January 20186th February 201812th March 2018

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