TIMKAT AND THE FLOATING WORLD
After the ‘Tembian Debacle’ I decided to go it alone for my next trek. I felt confident enough in my understanding of the culture to get by unaided even in the remotest of areas, but I think mainly I just wanted some peace and quiet. Because of this and for several other reasons, this turned out to be one of my favourites. Having got my boots re-glued and stitched by a capable young cobbler in Axum, I headed down to Korem, the nearest town to Lake Hashinge. Korem is situated where the Tigrinya plateau first rises up from the Amhara plains, and, compared with most of the arid desert plateaux of Tigray, this first strip of highland is a lush breadbasket of green terraced barley and wheat fields.
The area today may contrast strongly with the associations many Westerners will have with the name ‘Korem’ as it flashed up on their TV screens for aid appeals during the 1983-5 famine of Ethiopia. What is not commonly known, is that the Mengistu-led communist military dictatorship known as the Derg, used the famine as a counter-insurgency strategy against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) guerrilla-soldiers, by further restricting food supplies, which of course also affected the local populace. Due to organized government policies that deliberately multiplied the effects of the famine, around 1.2 million people died in Ethiopia at this time, with the majority of the death tolls from the Tigray and Amhara regions of northern Ethiopia
The town was one of the early refugee camps of the famine, housing 35,500 children in April 1983, and witnessed appalling death tolls in 1984 until the BBC began reporting conditions in October of that year, prompting international assistance to improve conditions with further food aid. My trip was initially delayed due to illness. I have a long and somewhat tolerant relationship with diarrhoea, as having travelled to many countries where it is prevalent – alas often those that house high mountain ranges – I almost expect a bout as a matter of course. I was not particularly fazed therefore when I was taken with a rather nasty strain of the affliction the night before I was due to set off.
After numerous trips to the bathroom during the night and in the morning, I packed a light rucksack and set off at 7am to walk to the lake. After 30 minutes of walking over flat ground with a light pack I felt like I had walked for eight hours uphill carrying a refrigerator. I put my pack down and lay on it for a while, slowly admitting to myself that I was in fact rather ill. I limped back to the road and caught a bajaj to the dilapidated building that called itself a hotel. Three days later, after much rest, a strict diet of plain food with two kilograms of bananas a day for their potassium content, sixteen tablets of tinidazole, three of zinc and plenty of water, I bounced back along to the same track to the lakeshore.
The time spent holed up in bed was in fact highly fortuitous as it not only gave me a chance to get my notes from previous excursions in their first real order, it more importantly put me in the right place at the right time to view one of the most amazing spectacles the country has to offer, of which I was until then completely unaware. Under a cloud of disinterested apathy, I had barely registered some of the local young men putting up multi-coloured streamers across the street as I had ventured out early that morning to the pharmacy for more medicinal supplies. After a slow day of writing and reading I had just eaten my 27th banana and resigned myself to a mid-afternoon ‘I’ve got nothing better to do’ nap when all of a sudden, a huge caterwauling and clatter began emanating from the street outside.
I ran to the balcony and blinked incredulously as a huge shining procession of gilt umbrellas marched below me, twinkling gold and silver with reds, purples and blues darting flames in the sunlight. The entire street thronged with men, women and children all dressed in white. A hotchpotch militia guard in oddly assorted garments of khaki and camouflaged clothing wore darkly coloured shammas with varying models of plastic or polished wood-stocked Kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders, flanked either side of the clergy.
These were dressed in the most sumptuous robes imaginable, especially given the remoteness of the area, with red and purple velvets and soft green felt caps patterned with silver thread. Those not carrying the finely stitched parasols with swaying tassels bore heavy wooden staffs with huge representations of the intricately latticed Meskel [Ethiopian Cross] worked from chunks of brass or nickel, or carved directly from large trunks of wood. My sickness haze evaporated immediately and I rushed back to my room, threw on my boots, grabbed my video gear and ran down and out the front door into the back-end of the Timket [Epiphany] street parade. Timket is one of the most important religious festivals in the country, commemorating the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
The main procession had already moved further down along the main street of the town and I had to scramble past vast multitudes of people on the left-hand side of the road, almost getting flattened by a donkey cart in the process, where there was just the tiniest amount of discernible space amongst the heaving throng in order to squeeze past and catch up. When I reached the main procession, I saw that excited young men were laying down large swathes of red and gold carpet or blue sacking, depending on what was immediately available. Once walked across by the 50 or so priests, the carpets and sacking were then re-rolled and carried down to the front of the procession on the shoulders of the running men and boys, to again be rolled open so the clergy’s feet never touched the ground. The boys’ faces flushed with the excitement, exertion and self-importance of a task being dutifully performed.
Then, as if a dam had broken on the right-hand-side of the street, a huge shoal of human movement surged forward under a forest of waving dula sticks, chanting and foot stomping. The crowd somehow parted to make way for the group of men and they stormed down the street as one body, stopping, forming circles and dancing around and around in a whirling circle of flying wooden sticks, then continuing on again. I ran up to them and angled my video camera above them pointing down to get a bird’s-eye-view. None of them paid any real attention to me, lost in the ecstasy of the dance.
Nearby, men and women took turns in shouldering huge three-foot-long hide drums, smashing out a pounding rhythm whilst dancing around and around in small circles made by the crowds. Groups of young children in orange and white outfits with crosses on them, looking like miniature knights-errant, sang in groups. Young girls and old women crowded together in separate groups singing their own songs. Everyone was smiling, laughing and clapping. People closed up and left their shops to join the parade. Those who could speak English spoke to me, not of themselves but of the parade, as I was the only non-Ethiopian there. The procession ended with the entire town amassed on a large plain where the religious rituals could take place in a green canvas tent with crucifixes of a cream material crudely stitched onto its sides.
I climbed a hillside to get a better view of this hive of activity amidst the idyllic mountain scenery, surrounded by a swarm of young children. And then, as soon as it had begun, it was over; the white dots on the plain drifted back the way they had come and disappeared into their houses. I suddenly felt very tired and trudged back to bed. The only lake of any size in Tigray, Hashinge feels like the Como of Ethiopia. It joins two large areas of lush flatland to the north and south where droves of cattle and other livestock are brought to graze and water. At a 2500m elevation the lake waters rest calmly, enclosed to the east and west by beautifully terraced foothills.
A church flashed like an aquamarine stone on a hillside as the sunlight caught it, the rays then abruptly cut off by an angry cloud rolling in to the higher peaks. I walked west along the south side of the lake, enjoying the shading of the water created by the rippling breeze, greeted by shepherds herding huge-horned cattle coming the other way. My plan was to walk up into the mountains on the west side of the lake, head north for two days, come down into the small town of Maychew, then summit Mt. Tsibet, situated to the northwest of the town at 3935m. It is the highest in mountain in Tigray. I had not heard of anyone doing the walk and didn’t bring a tent, assuming there would be plenty of mountain villages there upon whose hospitality I could rely.
The walk up into the foothills through grass-thatched villages was beautiful. The lake shimmered on my right hand side and everything was green. I passed a group of a hundred or so men all sitting down by a barn, celebrating the back-end of Timket. The hills became mountains and undulated higher. Passing through one village I was suddenly confronted with two huge glossy-coated yellow dogs, or curs, the size of small bears, running towards me at a frightening speed frothing, growling and barking. The first to reach the dirt bank was just about to leap off on to me (I saw his head go down for the pounce) but I had quickly dropped, picked up a large rock and, holding it high in the air so he could see it in a throwing action and making my body large, I gave the loudest grizzled growl I could manage.
This was just enough to check his leap and also that of his companion, and I slowly backed-up off the track across a field. They were only doing their job but I was positive they would have gone for me if I hadn’t reacted. At my next water stop I strapped my knife to the outside of my belt for the first time. Just in case. I also knew there were hyenas in the area and it gave me a surprising amount of confidence. At the next village I asked for water, for which they refused the offer of payment. The girls wore multi-coloured beads woven into their dresses, their timelessly consistent style of hair braided back to the middle of the head, then exploding out in large and frizzy plumes. They were a friendly family and I had to disentangle myself from them as it was still early in the day and they were trying to get me to sit on one of the small hide stools which had miraculously appeared and eat injera.
The father held my hand as he walked me out of the brushwood-fenced compound and they all yelled and directed me up the next mountain onto the correct path, which I had missed. The local track took me up and up until I came down into peaceful pastures with gnarled and twisted yew trees, providing occasional shade in the otherwise open, contoured grassland. Passing through a couple of villages I reached a deep terraced valley, at its head a large mountain crowned with four rocky peaks. All of the locals had said that if I wanted to reach Maychew I had to go down, onto and across the plain – advice I completely ignored.
I spotted a small grassy pass in the shape of a ‘U’ just to the left of the four peaks and my nose told me to head for it. I passed around the perimeter of one village seemingly deserted apart from a lone snotty-nosed baby girl. I passed through another gauntlet of dogs, and although losing the track, headed up to the pass. I saw some women bent double carrying heavy bundles of firewood high up above me on a perpendicular heading. I started to feel the altitude for the first time and dragged my heavy legs up to the top. The view down on the other side was spectacular. An easy path through grassy wood- land followed, as I had hoped it would, down and around the back of the four peaks on the right of the valley. On the other far side of the valley a tightly clustered village of thatched roofs on a small ledge looked like a mushroom patch in the distance.
Ahead, ruddy mountain passes dipped, then rose up as impenetrable walls, their summits leading to further hazier summits, backed up against the horizon. I passed some children herding their animals and followed the long path down and to the right, passing through more tiny hamlets. At one of these I saw a girl in an orange dress with her face painted a bright orange, from what I assumed must have been henna. Just as I was getting tired I reached a shallow green valley with a water pump half way up it, with large gusts of cloud rolling in and settling down from the east. A man in the last hamlet had gestured for me to take a left up over a small hill when I reached it. Somehow I felt that this was the last stretch of the day and sure enough as I rounded the crest of the hill and came down into another lush terraced valley I met a priest and he guided me into a grass hut compound.
A woman in her thirties owned the house and when I gestured if I could sleep there she gave me a look as if I had just asked her if it was OK if I breathed oxygen. Her mother lived with her and there were four young children running about. When she brought out the injera, the priest and his young novice stood up and, with a small metal cross in his hands, the priest intoned and prayed over the food with the novice saying prayers at certain intervals. I stood up and made the sign of the cross to show them I was part of the gang for reassurance and bowed my head. I remained in this position for a good ten minutes. The priest then splashed some water around the whitewashed dung walls of the tin-roofed hut, and we finally sat down to eat the flatbread with a hot red paste made from the spice mita- mita which I have not come across in any other country.
Communication was limited although, a picture worth a thousand words, I showed them some photos from my trip on my iPhone, eventually coming to photos from England. I had taken a picture of a dark blue 1960s Rolls Royce Silver Cloud in Mayfair for a friend of mine who is something of a Roller aficionado (although I watched him doughnut one in an empty dirt parking lot in Dubai one time), and I don’t mind admit- ting to you that to these innocent farmer-folk and men of the cloth, I pretended that this was my car. I actually overheard the grandmother talking about my makina to another round of priests who came in for food later.
It seemed to be a hotspot for the clergy to dine, although I never saw payment exchanged. Despite the language barrier we actually had a bit of a laugh together with me mimicking the parade for Timket in Korem, banging large drums, carrying crosses, whooping around with dula and so on. They gave me a comfortable bed in a partitioned-off storeroom and I fell asleep listening to the children playing and giggling. You could see in their eyes that they were good people. I was very aware of the amount of trust they had placed in me. I was a complete stranger to them, an uninvited foreigner with no references. Yet here I was welcomed to sleep in a house comprised of only women and children. I found the circumstance strangely touching.
In the morning after a wash and some food I had to fight the mother tooth and nail for her to accept payment, which she didn’t, so I ended up just leaving it on a bench. I was escorted out of the village by a collection of five or so priests and about the same number of men carrying machine guns for show. I found out later that the last foreigner to come to this village before me had been an aid worker two years previously. The path continued up to an even higher pass and after about an hour I reached the top. A tiny climb brought me to a small summit and I looked down into a huge valley stretching out in a never-ending sea of soft cotton wool, as I was way above the cloud line. Back the way I had come the cloud had also settled over the valley with the water pump. I took off my T-shirt and basked in the warm sun, my flea-battered white skin soaking up the Vitamin D.
I could hear the strange whoops and calls of hyenas from up and across a rock-strewn green section of mountain, but I couldn’t see them. The long descent brought me through another village settled on a promenade just nestled above the cloud, which in my mind I named ‘Laputa’ after the floating island in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, I continued down down down amidst idyllic scenery for most of the day to soft green plains where men where ploughing with oxen. When I finally reached the tarmac road, I hitched a ride into Maychew past the Raya Brewery from a rich local family driving a camouflage-painted Toyota pickup.
This sleepy backwater town has a surprising amount of historical significance. The Battle of Maychew [March 1936] was the last major battle fought on the northern front under Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie before he was forced to flee the country to the UK during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. Mussolini, through his Marshal Pietro Badoglio, employed the lethal weapon of mustard gas more heavily here than in other battles, and six weeks later his troops marched unopposed into Addis Ababa. Haile Selassie re-entered Addis in May 1941 as a combination of British, Commonwealth, Free French, Free Belgian and Ethiopian forces liberated Ethiopia from Italian control that year, due to Mussolini’s siding with Hitler at the beginning of the Second World War.
Maychew also saw significant resistance fighting during the Ethiopian Civil War, when the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of rebel groups, over- threw Mengistu’s Marxist Derg regime in 1991. A tapering stone obelisk stands on one of the hills overlooking the town in remembrance of those rebels who lost their lives in the conflict.
The next morning, after a night in another flea-infested hotel, I headed out from Maychew towards Tsibet, cutting directly across the countryside until I came to its foot. I had met with two interesting Habasha men home for the holidays the previous evening, both working for the UN with South Sudanese refugees and, becoming engrossed in political discussions, we had certainly consumed one-too-many glasses of ouzo. The fresh air was doing me good and I looked forward to a stiff climb. Following a steep track, after a couple of hours I came out onto a beautiful grassy meadow surrounded by yew trees. The meadow was large and extremely peaceful and in my mind I bookmarked it for a future campsite, although I have never returned here.
I stopped in the meadow for a while to bathe in the sun- light, watching the country traffic pass to and fro. Quite a few men were riding horses and cut dashing figures with their shammas blowing in the wind as they galloped across the plain. Green tree-covered mountains rose up all around with villages and hamlets dotted everywhere. I headed through a forest, then a large village, on a path that led up to the high grasslands. Coming around the east side of the mountain, its grey battlements arose up above me menacingly. I followed a track up and through the last village, with a particularly ferocious dog gauntlet, coming to what I later termed ‘The Chute of Misery’. The only break in the vertical stone faces of the southern side; a thin natural chute led up into the mountain. About 20m across, it rose for 300m at a clean 50 degree angle.
In combination with the altitude, I felt my pace slow to a trudge as I put my mind in a happy place and just let my feet do the work. A young shepherd sat on a rock at the bottom of the chute listening to a box radio, the repetitive beat of the songs reverberating from the rock walls. When I finally reached the top, I followed some excellent ridge walking along a col towards the summit. This was not much higher than the col and is formed, unexpectedly, of a soft grassy mound of such perfect proportions it reminded me of an Iron Age hill fort. Bouncing up the grass with renewed energy it was by far the most reward- ing summit of my trip, and its 360 degree view one of the most moving in terms of grandeur.
I had that feeling that you don’t always get but when you do get it you remember why you climb mountains. To the north, greenness left the plateaux as it ventured further into Tigray, its dusty dry peaks enveloping one another, somehow emanating a biblical, holy feeling. To the far east the land dropped away in a sheer fall of at least a thousand metres to a frying pan plain, eventually leading to a thin-walled cordillera; the perimeter of the dreaded Afar region. To the south and west the green- topped peaks had become silvery blue in the haze of distance and I traced my route from the preceding days. Directly below and four hours up, the grassy meadow I had walked across was etched by the straight line of the dirt track, bridging the curve of a small stream like a crossbow.
Maychew glinted like silver powder. Above me the sun caught the edge of a thin curling wisp of cloud and it flashed golden against the blue. I flung up my arms and gave a great yell to the gods.