Getting High in Ethiopia

There’s something magical about Gheralta. Maybe the euphoria of the 1987 revolution still hangs in the air. It could be the wonder of stepping into 1400-year-old churches. Or maybe I was just high on endorphins and a slight dose of fear.

The rock-hewn churches of Gheralta are fast becoming a tourist destination. The churches are by no means as impressive as the ones you’ll find at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lalibela, nor are they the oldest churches in Ethiopia. Most are drawn here because you have to work for your hit of ancient churches, which were built hundreds of metres up rocky outcrops to avoid the invading Ottoman Empire. If you have vertigo, strike this one off your list immediately.

The heights scaled to get to Abuna Yemata Guh

If however, you have a strong sense of adventure, a decent level of fitness, a need for adrenaline, or simply a willingness to persevere, then this trip should be at the top of your Ethiopian travel wish list.

The Climb

A group of eight of us set off early in the morning through the greener than average plains that lead to the mountains. The recent rains had caused hundreds of yellow Meskel flowers to come into bloom, and vivid green grasses sprang from patches that usually lie dusty and barren. Although the landscape remains sufficiently breathtaking all year round, this must be the best time to visit Gheralta – just after the rains die down in September.

We stopped briefly to pick up our guide, Kunfu. Many Jackie Chan jokes ensued. Luckily he had a great sense of humour and an even better smile. We warmed to him immediately. He asked us if we wanted to climb the first church with the aid of a rope. Bravado kicked in and we all decided against it. In retrospect, this was the right idea. I struggle to see how an old and fraying piece of rope could have significantly helped us, maybe psychologically.

The first church we tackled was the infamous Abuna Yemata Guh. The previous night, as we sipped tej (honey wine) cocktails at the lodge, the owner gravely told us that anyone attempting the climb to this church was risking their life – great confidence booster!

Kunfu and his million $ smile!

The climb to Abuna Yemata Guh isn’t as physically demanding as reaching some of the other churches, but it is more technical and demands that you maneuver across one metre wide ledges (1:45mins in the video below – imagine the original sound effects of “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”), scale vertical rock faces (1:16mins) with minimum support, overlooking 200 metre drops, so I guess the guy had a point.

The beautiful and ancient paintings inside Abuna Yemata Guh

However, we were somewhat supported by ‘Peace & Security’ – three local ex-military men whom accompanied us on our climb. They were extremely encouraging and gave us an extra push (literally) when we needed it. I especially liked them after they told me I was strong; turns out long legs are helpful when bouldering.

We reached the church after walking and climbing for approximately 1.5hrs. We were welcomed by a young priest-in-training. As Kunfu told us a bit of background, the priest displayed an ancient bible written on goat’s skin in the language of Ge’ez – the precursor of the modern Ethiopian language of Amharic. We marveled at the original wall paintings as Kunfu told us that the church, carved straight out of the rock, was built anywhere between 7th-12th centuries. A bit vague, but amazing nevertheless.

Note the scarification on the priest's forehead - a cross

The churches are primitive, modest at best, but with the knowledge that the structures were literally carved straight out of rock to escape the invading hoards, it’s quite amazing. I’m by no means a religious person, but when I stepped into Abuna Yemata Guh, I certainly felt something overwhelm me, quite possibly just adrenaline from the climb.

We spent a good amount of time sat at the entrance to the church recuperating from the tough ascent and taking in some of the most inconceivably beautiful scenery. The rock jutted up like the back of a stegosaurus, too steep for any vegetation, yet in the distance we saw endless cropland that had benefitted from the recent rains.

The view outside Abuna Yemata Guh

For me, the climb was exhilarating, but I have to stress that if you suffer from vertigo, even a hint, this will shake you up. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you’ll LOVE it!

After a packed lunch we started the next ascent. Getting to the next two churches (Maryam Korkor and Daniel Korkor), found on the same plot, didn’t involve a technical climb, but this was a more physically exhausting hike. We were rewarded at the top with even more stunning views. The priest however, was nowhere to be found and it took Kunfu a good 20 minutes to locate him. He was pretty grumpy, as though the intermittent stream of tourists that pass through were a big bother (even though such tourists pour a decent amount of money into the churches – each church is 100birr ($4) per person for non-residents).

The grumpy priest at Mariam Korkor

As the hike finished, one of the ‘Peace & Security’ team very kindly invited us into his home for bunna (strong and black Ethiopian coffee) and bread. His four year old daughter switched between serving us bread and staring at us in curiosity, or maybe disgust, we undoubtedly looked bedraggled and in need of a wash.

The beautiful daughter of our 'Peace & Security' guide holding meskel flowers

In total, we hiked for about 5 hours, at points during the hottest point in the day. It wasn’t a gentle walk, so you’ll need a decent level of fitness to endure, nothing too strenuous or technical though. It will definitely help if you’re already acclimatized to the altitude of 2200m (the altitude before the climb).

Guides are mandatory if you want to visit the churches. You will pick one up at the Gheralta Guides Association office, located in Megab on the way to Abuna Yemata Guh.

Bradt Ethiopia guidebook states that you’ll pay $19.25 per day for a guide taking 4-5 people. A tip is also expected. We were more than happy to give Kunfu a few extra Birr. He was by far the most efficient, helpful and friendly guide I’ve come across in Ethiopia.

The view from Maryam Korkor

Gheralta Lodge

I’ve lived in Ethiopia now for almost 2.5 years and this was my favourite trip. Gheralta Lodge definitely has a part to play in this, bearing in mind that most hotels in Ethiopia are poorly constructed and bad value for money. Gheralta Lodge has been built to impeccable standards using local materials, and even mimics the local architecture. The food is simple and Italian inspired, thanks to the Italian owners. They also grow and produce a lot of the ingredients on site, including delicious guava and papaya jams.

When we got back to the hotel after our hike, we marveled at the amazing view, looking upon the mountains that we had just climbed a few hours previously. When the mountains faded into darkness, the stars took their place and added to the magic and wonder.

The view from Gheralta Lodge

Our trip coincided with Ethiopian New Year – we celebrated the incoming of 2009 (Ethiopia go by the Julian calendar) by drinking honey wine cocktails and dancing around the bonfire. When the fire died down we were urged to jump over it three times to ensure good luck throughout the New Year.

The Video


I'm Hannah - a communications consultant and avid traveller, based in Ethiopia. This is a travel blog about Africa, and beyond!

I hope that my travel exploits inspire you to get out there and see the world!

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