Trekking through Meket with TESFA
Trip Start Aug 31, 2005
18Trip End Mar 11, 2006
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After a night in Mekele and another day on the road (accompanied by a record number of accidents - current count at 8) we arrived in Weldiya on Sunday night and managed to swing a lift with a couple of guys heading back to Lalibela the next morning. What luxury - a 4WD complete with stereo system, suspension and speed! After a few false starts we left Weldiya at 10am and arrived in Gashena at precisely 11:54am - without even breaking a sweat. Unfortunately the guide we were meeting at midday didn't have as much faith as us and had taken off shortly before we arrived to telephone his office and confirm whether we were coming or not ;-)
While we waited for the guide to show up we lunched with Alison and Anne-Marie, our fellow trekkers for the next 4 days. The meal was as fresh as the lamb being carved up out the back and very tasty... good hiking food! Shortly after we set off with Berhifun, our TESFA (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives) guide, two Atterow locals and a donkey laden to the nines with all our gear. The first day was a taster; only two hours of walking through more or less flat farmland to a campsite perched on the edge of a magnificent plateau. This community is the newest participant in the TESFA program and is accordingly still in its infancy - we were only the second group to come through and were treated to a lot of wide-eyed curiosity. The site is located about a kilometre from Atterow village so we dumped our stuff and walked the extra distance to pay our regards to the locals. We were lucky enough to gatecrash a St Mariam celebration (occuring on the 21st day of each month of the Ethiopian calendar) which we were warmly invited to join. After a few hours of consuming bits of sour bread and a vaguely alcoholic (15-day fermented) barley drink... and doing our best to answer questions like "Why is your skin white?", "Are you here to steal our farmland" and "Will you try to convert our faith?" we headed back to the campsite to a dinner that appeared as if from nowhere. Bedtime followed shortly after sunset and a game of cards by candlelight.
Day two was a little more strenuous, involving a 6 hour hike from Atterow to Wajela. We woke for sunrise and set off after breakfast (but not before the community chairman and accountant arrived to thank us and sit through a quick lesson in finance). The day was spent circumnavigating the edge of the plateau via a dirt track which was "paved" with loose rocks in places... not too rough on the legs but a bit treacherous on the feet at times. We arrived in Wajela early afternoon to find 3 gorgeous little huts perched on the edge of yet another cliff with spectacular views (you wouldn't want to be a sleep-walker around here!). As yesterday we were greeted by the community-nominated kitchen staff who appeared with trays of pikelets, home-made pizza, tea and coffee. Very surreal. The rest of the afternoon was spent meditating on the view with the help of binoculars - I spotted a church hewn into the side of a cliff down below, a couple of baboons and a lot of under-age cattle-herders trying to get their fleet together for the evening hike home. Sunset was spent brushing up on our Amharic with the kitchen lasses - Yeshi, Yeshi and Mulu - and once more bed followed shortly after a beer, whisky and darkness fell.
I woke on the third day to a disoriented state - wind was rushing through the eucalyptus trees outside creating a sound similar to the noise of breaking waves. Before the homesickness set in I went outside to appreciate the serenity of the morning sun rising over the mountains and villagers slowly trekking up the slopes on the way to work. Ah... peace :-) After another early start we walked for about 7 hours to the last and original community tourism site - which was just as well as we had all finally started to feel the effects of the exercise and sun (at 2900m altitude). Each village is very special in its own way but Mequat Mariam is absolutely spectacular with the most amazing view I have ever seen! It is also the most developed site, complete with bamboo shower quarters, a toilet with a view over the edge of the world, awesome food and Brad Pitt's signature! Yes, Brad has been one of the 150 people to leave his footprints (and comments in the guest book) here - almost a year to the date before we did. After a most peaceful evening of sudoku, sunsets, coffee ceremony and quiet conversation Berihun shocked us all by proclaiming there had been violent protests in Addis - this he had heard via a German shortwave radio broadcast. With heavy hearts we turned in for yet another early night, exhausted and content but deeply disturbed at the news that the people of this wonderful country have been dealt yet another blow - this time to the clutching hope that a democratic Ethiopia wasn't too far off.
The last day involved a stiff but short 3 hour hike to Filaket where we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways; Alison and Anne-Marie to Bahir Dar and Hannah and myself in the tentative direction of Addis (we weren't sure what the situation was like so again we had decided to play things by ear). The adventure wasn't quite over yet, though - enter the strangest bus journey of a lifetime! To set the scene, the 120km journey took over 5 hours. The first hour was spent literally stopping every 10 or so metres, loading and unloading passengers, bundles of wood, chickens and what have you - in this fashion it took us 2 hours to travel the 30km to Gashena. The next leg of the journey was defined by breast-feeding mothers, meowing cats, rampaging chickens and a fight that involved at least half of the passengers. The last and most memorable section, after we had relocated to the front of the bus, was punctuated by group singalongs to Teddy Afro along with major snackage on beans and the best carrots I've ever tasted.... but then...
...at one of the villages a pregnant woman in obvious pain boarded the bus along with her husband and father - we were now an ambulance! (but seemed to travel even more slowly than before). Hannah and I realised after about half an hour that the woman was actually having contractions... and counting the minutes between (varying from one to five) we decided she was very close to giving birth. Concerned, we tried to subtley hurry the driver but he assured us that everything was fine and there was nothing to worry about. Not so!!! After one false alarm, the woman made us pull over ten minutes from our final destination and to our shock and amazement, we were told she was going to have the baby on the bus!! Everyone bar the immediate family, a handful of women and of course Hannah and I left the bus and before we knew it, the woman had bent over and laid a baby! The umbilical cord was cut with what looked like a piece of sharp cardboard and she sunk to the floor in a mess of blood and placenta while her husband wrapped the baby in a blanket. Now there was a sense of urgency - we beelined to Weldiya and the whole bus pulled up in front of the hospital 10 minutes later. What can I say... I never thought my first birth would be quite like that - I still find it hard to believe what that woman did with such dignity and relative ease (although there was definitely a lot of pain). What would Mela have done!? Ahh... if only you had been there! :-)