I spent the last day exploring the eleven rockhewn churches in Lalibela. "Their building is attributed to King Lalibela who set out to construct in the 12th century a ‘New Jerusalem’, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the holy Land (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/18).
You would need months to explore these churches properly and much longer to begin to understand the rich history and religion of Ethiopia. Words will not do this experience justice, probably not photos either but they stand a better chance.
Watching the sunrise was surreal. The best part was listening to the day’s harvesting planning session, literally shouted from the mountain top. Getnet explained that the farmers were calling to each other to decide which farm would harvested on which day. Hearing the voices calling to and fro across the mountains was just beautiful.
The day started out fairly flat (for Ethiopian standards) and then dropped down to a river crossing. This broke the cardinal rule of hiking, never ever lose altitude that must be gained again at a later stage………
After a peaceful morning meander down to the river, we climbed again, with much huffing and puffing to an altitude of around 4 400m. Again, every step was worth the effort. There was so much to see and hear. The patterns and different shades of the terraced farms in various stages of the barley harvest, young cattle headers and shepherds, an ongoing bird chorus, constant long distance chatting between farmers and a truly enormous blue sky above.
The temperature dropped sharply as we got higher and by the time we reached the overnight stop I was wearing pretty much all the layers I had. Another lovely evening was spent making dinner in the tukul, pitch dark bar the fire, eyes streaming from the smoke, not understanding a work of what was being said but perfectly content.
Back in Lalibela I found the accomodation I had booked, Sora Lodge. It was an oasis. A nice clean room with a wonderful shower (no running water for 3 days makes this worth mentioning) and a restaurant with a wonderful view. A perfect place to sit and reflect on an incredible 3 days.
After a full 2 days spent in Addis Ababa we found ourselves on a very early flight to Lalibela. Lucy and Jack had their own plans so the airport taxi dropped them at their hotel and I was on my own.
Just a note. The full planning time for this trip was around 2 days. The opportunity arose to join the Great Ethopian Race team and I grabbed that. I then realised that it may be possible to combine this with a slight detour to tick two major points on my travel list – (1) explore the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and (2) walk in the Simien Mountains and hopefully see an Ethiopian Wolf, Lammergeyer and Gelada Monkey.
With very limited planning time, I selected the first community trekking organisation I came across and booked a 3-day trek into the mountains starting in Lalibela. My entire communication with the trekking organisation was limited to
How long do you have to walk? 3 days, 2 nights
Where would you like to walk? I don’t mind. I would like a chance to see an Ethiopian Wolf. Ok. The best option will be the walk to Abuena Yusef. Perfect. (I realised once we started walking that the Ethiopian wolves live at a very high altitude and that Abuena Yusef is at an altitude of 4 600m. Rookie error.).
Please pay into this bank account. Ok. Payment was made via Paypal (in Dutch) via an account in the Netherlands (name in no way linked to the name of the trekking organisation).
Please wait at the Seven Olive Hotel in Lalibela on 23 November. Your guide will find you. Great.
Sitting on my backpack in front of the Seven Olive Hotel, alone, with no cell phone reception (and in any event no contact number for the guide) and having recently discovered that I could not draw additional cash as the ATMs only account 4 number pin numbers (mine has 5), I concluded that this was possibly not my wisest travel plan ever. Fortunately, before I could panic, Getnet and Breku, my guides for the trip arrived. Without much chit chat they loaded my backpack onto Bullet, the donkey, and started walking.
The walk to the first overnight stop was both one of the best and toughest experiences I have had. The scenery is simply breathtaking as was the altitude (literally)! As we started walking we literally walked “up” and out of Lalibela. The altitude in Lalibela is around 2 600m. The gradient was crazy from the start. After an hour or so of this I asked Getnet what the route was for the day and he just said, “Just up. Don’t worry, it will be nice.” The distance for the day was 12km with a 1 100m climb, to an altitude of around 3 500m.
I had the the opportunity to join the Vivibarefoot/Soul of Africa team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in November 2015. Soul of Africa is an incredible social enteprise. More information can be viewed on www.soulofafrica.com. The purpose of the visit was threefold – to get to know the Vivobarefoot team (Lucy Stewart and Jack Cannon); to visit the non profit organisations that Vivobarefoot/Clarks/Soul of Africa support in Addis and to participate in the 10km Great Ethopian Run (GER).
The team that started the GER in 2001 included Haile Gebrselassie. The aim of the run is to create an opportunity for showcasing the best of Ethiopia's vast up-and-coming running talent. Apart from the elite racing aspect of the race, it has also become a huge event with literally thousands of “fun run” participants. 10 000 participants took place in the inaugural run in 2001. By 2010 there were 35 000 participants. On the 22nd of November 2015 there were between 38 000 and 40 000 participants.
This is not an event for a PB. In fact, due to the huge number of participants it is more a walk than a run. The relatively high altitude of 2 300m also ensures a slower than expected time. To try to race this event would be to miss the point. Each km is indicated by different bands/DJ stands instead of the usual km markers. This requires stopping to dance and enjoy the vibe and chat to other runners. The race is about the carnival atmosphere, the smiling faces and being part of a celebration of the love and talent that Ethiopians have for running.
Meeting up with the Brave Hearts and Destino teams at the end of the run was a perfect end to the event – it is about community and we really did feel part of the Addis community even if we had only been there for 36 hours!
We spent the afternoon of the race visiting the Selamta Family Project. This is another hugely inspirational organisation. More information can be viewed on www.selamtafamilyproject.org. We spent the afternoon at one of the family homes chatting to the children, watching TV (including the race highlights) and drinking the most incredible freshly roasted coffee.
It was a great opportunity to experience Addis with the Brave Hearts, Destino and Selamta communities but also to connect with Lucy and Jack – 48 hours like that can truly cement friendships!
Before I left I downloaded about 10 books onto my kindle to read while I was away. This is an extract from the only book I actually read. It is called 'To The Field of Stars' and is written by a Catholic Priest, Kevin Codd, about his Camino experience. I think that this extract sums up the “Call of the Camino” perfectly.
“It may well come to pass at a certain point in the course of a life that a person hears of stars dancing in a field at night. It is possible that such a story would be immediately dismissed as the stuff of a childish fantasy or a piece of old wives’ tale, not to be taken seriously in these modern times. At best, the story may be taken as simply another happy ending to a fable created by the likes of the Grimm brothers or J.R.R. Tolkien. It could also be that the image of stars coming low to earth and performing a joyful circle dance in the dead of night might nevertheless capture a person’s imagination even if such an image would not seem to belong to the world of facts and history and our modern understanding of what transpires in the course of real life.
I am about to share here a story about stars at dance. May I advise you to exercise a modicum of caution in attending to what follows, for the story of stars dancing over a field in a faraway land may so draw you away from the ordinary business of daily life that you find yourself, quite to your surprise, in a new world of unexpected adventures and remarkable people and some very profound mysteries.
If this should happen to you, if the story of the stars playing above the dusty bones of an old saint should capture you in its strange field of gravity, it may well draw you out of your house, and out of town. And if you leave home to see these stars cavort for yourself it will surely change you. You will come to see that which was previously unseen. You will witness miracles. You will, in the end, find yourself coming to know what is most true about these brief lives we have been given to live out on this tender earth.
So if the very thought of seeing stars dance piques your curiosity at some deep level, then pay attention to what follows, for the walk to the field of stars, to Santiago de Compostela, is a journey that has the power to change lives forever.”
BUEN CAMINO, MY PILGRIM FRIENDS
It is impossible to explain this day in words. I found the whole day of our arrival completely overwhelming. We started walking at just before 05h00 to make sure we got to the 12 o’clock mass. It was pitch dark when we started. I was concentrating so hard on staying on my feet that it took me a while to look up and see the incredible stars. Of course. We were, after all, arriving at the field of stars! It couldn’t have been more perfect.
It turned into a lovely sunny day and being a Sunday the cathedral square was packed with people. It was all a blur. Arriving. Lots of hugs and congratulations. Many tears. People everywhere. We went and got our Compostela and found a place in the cathedral for mass. The priests swung the Botafumeiro. The nuns lead the singing. We spent the afternoon sitting on the square watching people arrive and the evening eating tappas with all the people I had walked with over the last 5 weeks. I don’t think I absorbed anything until the next morning. I woke up really early and walked down to the square again. It was empty and I sat quietly and wrote my journal and took some photos and let it all sink in. Dale came walking across the square on his way to Finisterre. It was so special to have a quiet chat and moment with him as he walked on. He was such an inspiration and mentor on my journey. By the time the sun came up I felt as if the journey was complete.
I think that at this stage, a message that I had seen written in the 13th Century St Stephen Church in Navarra, made sense to me:
Blessed are you pilgrim, if what concerns you most is not to arrive, as to arrive with others
Blessed are you pilgrim, if you discover that one step back to help another is more valuable that a hundred forward without seeing what is at your side.
Blessed are you, pilgrim if on the way you meet yourself and gift yourself with time, without rushing, so as not to disregard the image in your heart
Blessed are you pilgrim, because you have discovered that the authentic Camino begins when it is completed.
When I sat in the cathedral square that morning, I realised that the real challenge lay ahead - the challenge to live my life with “Camino Perspective”.
These were days filled with laughter and cemented friendships that will last a lifetime.
“If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man, don't bother analyzing his ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much he is moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch him laugh. If he laughs well, he's a good man.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky
As I mentioned in my previous post, we were somewhat taken aback by the drastic increase in the number of pilgrims in this last stretch into Santiago. To say that we muttered a bit about the “newbies” was an under statement - it was just a completely different vibe, people on cell phones, clean trainers and clothes. Anyway, in Ribadiso, there was only one albergue so everyone who stopped there stayed in the same place. There was a big outside area where we could sit and watch people arrive. As each member of the South Korean group arrived, the members of their group who had already got there stood and cheered them in. I realised that for them, walking those 4/5 days was as much an achievement and “out of your comfort zone” experience as walking the whole thing. As with most aspects of the Camino, it was very humbling indeed.
The Green Bar.....
The last photo is for Dale. I can still hear him reciting this poem. The last verse was repeated many, many times as I walked.
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The walk from Samos into Sarria and and beyond gave one another solid dose of “Galician Magnificence”. There is something so humbling about being surrounded by mountains. As much as I loved the openness and big skies of the meseta, it was the mountains that stole my heart. The misty mornings, spring blossoms and literally hundreds of shades of green were just breathtaking. My plan had been to push on to Portamarin from Samos but my legs started objecting and I stopped in Ferrerios. If I had to chose, I would say that the stretch from Sarria into Ferrerios was my favourite of the day. The images included in the slideshow below are from this section.
It was also during the section into Ferrerios that we passed the 100km marker (distance to Santiago). I missed the marker but this one is close enough! The last 100km is significant because it is the minimum required to apply for a Compostela certificate when reaching Santiago. As a result, the number of people from this point increases significantly.
The albergue in Ferrerios was surprisingly new and well equipped. All along the Camino, it never ceased amaze me how a good meal, full set of clean clothes and a comfortable mattress allowed for a remarkable, sometimes near miraculous, recovery after a long day of walking.
Because of our “day off” in Ponferrado and my detour to Samos I now found myself about 13km behind my Camino Family (aka Camino Tribe). My original plan had been to arrive in Santiago on Sunday, the 5th of May. On a Sunday, the 12 o’clock pilgrim mass in the Santiago Cathedral includes the swinging of the Botafumeiro, a giant incense burner. Most people I had met and come to know were also planning to get to Santiago on that day and the idea of all arriving and attending the pilgrim mass together was wonderful. So, I was torn between not rushing the last few days and wanting to finish together, as planned. There was also the small issue of the actual number of kilometers that needed to be walked to get there! At Ferrerios, I had to make a call, either to catch up at Palas de Rei, which would mean a 38km walk or reach Santiago on Monday, the 6th of May.
That night I I read this section from the book I was reading “To The Field of Stars”, by Kevin Codd:
“Perhaps the time has come for me to let go of my camino and allow it to become from this point on OUR camino. From here on the pilgrimage becomes something new for me. I am no longer alone on this strange road across Iberia; we are in this together to the end.”
My decision was made. Our Camino needed to be finished together. I walked for 12 hours the next day and caught my friends. I am so grateful I did. Finishing together really was the absolute highlight of the journey for me.
I was out of the Ferrerios albergue and walking by 05h00 the next morning. It was pitch dark for the first few hours and just ridiculously beautiful. Apart from the nightjars calling non stop, it was absolutely quiet. I walked completely on my own until I reached Portamarin, apart from a stop in at a South African run albergue, where I had a quick cup of Rooibos tea!
Just a note on the “new” pilgrims. As I said, we were now into the last 100km of the Camino Frances. Walking it in a quiet time of year as we did, it is quite a bump when there are suddenly so many people around. This was especially the case after my peaceful walk into Portamarin. Just through the town, I turned a corner and this is what I saw.....
I caught up with Philipp at Gonzar just after I took this photo. We were two very happy little ants to be together again! Tim and Scott also arrived and we had a great coffee together. We were, however, all in a mild state of shock because of the mass influx of pilgrims. There was a long queue for the bathroom and an even longer coffee queue (this being a real potential issue going ahead!). We had somehow also managed to land up in the middle of a tour group of about 70 South Koreans. I was all the more grateful to have caught up with the people I had come so far with.
Along the way we also caught up with Susie and Kkin. So much happiness! The walk from Gonzar to Palas de Rei was a blur of coffee and laughter.
I have to say that I had a tired set of legs getting into Palas de Rei! We found Dale and Eric and Kevin at a pub close to the albergue. The albergue was full so we found a pensión. I was not that disappointed to have a room to myself for the night! We all went to dinner together and I was a very tired but happy pilgrim when I went to sleep that night.
We started walking the next morning in the snow. Seriously. The second snowfall in my “spring” walk across Spain.
The snow covered statue of Don Elias Valiña Sampedro, who was the parish priest at the Inglesia de Santa Maria Real and did a lot to ensure the integrity of the Camino Frances, including marking the route yellow arrows.
I was slightly less shocked by the snow this time around and although it was very cold walking (my SA gear proved slightly below average in terms of handling snow), the snow covered landscape was just breathtaking. Every section of the Camino Frances is beautiful in its own way but Galicia is special. It is simply magnificent.
As I mentioned previously, my parents walked the Camino a few years back. They were very gracious in letting me walk my own Way and not giving me to much input about where to stop etc. The one recommendation they had made was to spend a night in Samos. To stay there meant a slight detour and leaving Philipp again. His tendonitis was still a problem and he didn’t want to add any extra milage on to the journey. Although I paid for the extra distance over the next few days, the walk into Samos was incredible. I only saw one person from the time I left Triacastela until I reached the monastery at Samos, a distance of about 12km. The scenery was just beautiful and I loved the remoteness of the route.
The Benedictine Abbey of Samos, which is still a monastery is one of the three monasteries that are still inhabited by monks in Galicia . The abbey was founded by Saint Martiño de Dumio in the 6th century, right in the midst of the Visigothic period. Being in Samos was yet another significant highlight of the Camino for me. I got there just in time to do the last tour of the monastery.I met up with Caz, from Australia, and we had a great dinner with Craig and Laura and a few others. Caz had kept me a spot on the private albergue which was so much appreciated. It was really cold and after a long day of walking, the thought of sleeping in a 6th century, rather draughty dormitory was a bit much to handle.
This “selfie” proves that I was still smiling just before I arrived in Samos, after an 11 hour day where it either snowed or rained almost the entire way. It was a truly magnificent and inspirational day of walking.
I stopped for my first cup of coffee at Trabadelo where I bumped into Craig. I think he may have been a little taken a back by how happy I was to see him but after my freezing, lonely night, I was so relieved to see a friendly face it was all I could do not to burst into tears. It struck me yet again that, although I started this journey completely alone, the people I met along the way ultimately made the journey. It was the shared laughter and experiences, bumping into each other in coffee shops and on remote mountain paths that made the Camino the remarkable experience that it was.
A friendly face and a serious caffeine top up was all I needed to get going and the rest of the walk into the O’Cebreiro remains one of my best days of walking. I had continually heard about how tough the climb would be but I loved it. The mountains were so very beautiful that I forgot all about my legs and the uphill. It was just such a joy to be out walking in such a magnificent place I had to keep myself from laughing out loud. And, to make the day absolutely perfect, Philipp was waiting in O’Cebreiro. He had decided to rest for an extra day and we would walk on from there together.
Just before reaching the town of O’Cebreiro you cross into Galicia. It was a big milestone and for the first time it felt like the time was going by to quickly, like the end of the journey was approaching to fast.
O’Cebreiro is an iconic part of the Camino Frances. Part of the church, the Inglesia de Santa Maria Real dates back to the 9th century and is the oldest extant church associated directly with the pilgrim way and the stone buildings in the town are originally formed part of a monastic development that dates back to the 11th Century (J. Brierly). Franciscan Monks conducted Mass in the Inglesia de Santa Maria Real that evening. As evening approached, mist rolled in and the temperature plummeted. Little did we know that we would wake up to a snow covered town the next morning.
O’Cebreiro can quite accurately be described as a "hobbit" town. In fact, there are so aspects of the Camino that remind one of Lord of the Rings that it became a bit of a theme for the journey. I know the structure below is a wine cellar but nobody can argue that it doesn't look like a part of the Shire....
On that note....
“Remember what Bilbo used to say: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – JRR Tolkien
I was privileged to spend a lot of time exploring wilderness areas in southern Africa from a very young age. I got my first camera when I was 6 years old and I have been passionate about wildlife and landscape photography ever since.