Tesfa trek Tigray

Tesfa trek in Tigray
Suddenly we are in the last stretch of our two years in Mekelle, so recently we’ve tried to focus on what we want to do before we leave. We’ve loved seeing the country and it’s best done before it’s too hot in May/June or too wet, June onwards. This year there was a cluster of bank holidays at the beginning of May: May Day (International workers Day) followed by Ethiopian Easter (yes followed by) on May 5th. We decided to do our second Tesfa trek, this time just north of here in Tigray.
TESFA stands for “Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives”, and also means “hope” in the local language. Tesfa run two treks, both in areas close to Ethiopia’s “Rock Hewn” churches. We did the trek near Lalibela last September and this one, closer to home, in May.
The aim is to bring tourism right to the heart of Ethiopian people in a way which benefits them and leaves few “tourism scars”. Having done both treks now, we can see that it’s a win-win. You stay in simple accommodation, a compound in the style of the local houses, built with local materials. Each place has 3 rooms. Local people look after the rooms and serve dishes typical of the region and season.
In this part of Ethiopia, the houses – “hidmos” – are strong, stone-built rectangular structures. They either stand alone or in a compound surrounded by a protective wall, with family, animals and harvested goods within. Huge cactus hedges are typical too, either bordering paths or around homesteads. In the rainy season, they produce masses of fruit – “beles” – which, once you’ve found your way through the outer prickles, are deliciously sweet and make great jam.
So with the Ethiopian Easter approaching, we were off to trek in the Tigray Mountains. Volunteers, Gareth and Viv from Axum joined us and we met up in Adigrat, the midpoint between our two towns – a three-hour drive for both of us.
This part of the north is away from the main tourist destinations so there’s very little commercialism. However, there are 2 Lodges in Tigray, conveniently placed to access the start and to flop into after the trek, so it was almost a “lodge2lodge” trip. They are both lovely, quite simple, almost like retreats, but with great scenery and, like Tesfa, doing an excellent job giving employment and developing tourism in a way that is sensitive to the local way of life.
Our first stop, “Agora Lodge” at Adigrat, is less than a year old and was developed by the Spanish catholic Sisters. Catholics have a long history in Adigrat; the first school in Ethiopia was established by them as early as the 1850s. They used the development of the lodge as a skills training project for local people. Each room has a poster which tells the story of one of the people involved. Funnily enough the featured person in our room came from Quiha, a village just outside Mekelle, near the airport!
A couple of habesha friends from Mekelle came as far as Adigrat, along with Celine, our American flute playing friend, who was also doing the trek. Celine started her work in Ethiopia in Adigrat and spent quite a bit of time with the catholic sisters and at their orphanage. It was very moving to witness an unexpected reunion between her and a young woman who had been brought up in the orphanage, now working at the Lodge, who recognised Celine from her time in Adigrat.

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After a gentle afternoon walk, excellent meal and scenery gazing time, we were off the next day to start the trek. A breathtaking ride along switchback roads with dizzy drops took us to the start of our walk.
Each day meant some challenging climbs, dramatic scenery and spectacular views. We went through valleys which sometimes have a Mediterranean feel to them and villages, where the people were preparing for Easter. There was spring cleaning going on, animal fattening and food preparation. Easter for the Orthodox Christians is preceded by a 56 day fast. This means eating no animal products at all and strict observers will take only water before midday. So breakfast after 56 days is an orgy of meat eating.
The accommodation had a theme – each compound was perched on a precipice with amazing views. It’s a no-frills experience – no electricity or running water. The donkeys were loaded with yellow jerry cans and brought water up to the houses, a common experience for many Ethiopians (in the absence of donkeys, water carrying is woman’s work). As usual we met wonderful people and were all in love with our excellent guides by the time we finished.
From the trek we moved on to the Gheralta Lodge – familiar to those who’ve been to see us here. After a night’s rest we were refreshed and ready for another walk up to a nearby rock-hewn church.

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That should have been the end of the trip, but it just so happened that the following day, we’d been invited to a wedding not too far away. So we dropped in at the first, conveniently placed for a quick change into “wedding outfits”, and off we went. We’d been warned that getting to the wedding was going to be a bit of a trek itself, and had an hour’s cross country walk to get there (party shoes in bag!)
We’d both decided it was time to sort ourselves out with “occasion wear” Ethiopian style. Men and women usually both wear white, but fashions are shifting slightly and I went for a “this year’s special” in a different colour. I felt luckier than John as his outfit included something like a cricket sweater, rather hot as we trekked across the fields! Wedding celebrations generally take about three days and often take place after fasting has finished, so there can be a real meatfest. We were there for the part of the festivities that took place at the groom’s house, but unfortunately had to leave when the party was about to move to the bride’s house (two houses away in the same village), for the hour’s walk back to the road then the three hour drive back to Mekelle. Nonetheless, it was a great experience and we were pleased to be invited.

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All in all a great trip. We would all recommend the Tesfa treks. In fact I was moved to write and say how much we’d enjoyed it afterwards. The manager replied asking if he could include my testimony on the website. A few days later I looked it up and there was my bit in the “guest book” – immediately after one written by Brad Pitt! I felt almost famous, though I suspect his will stay number one, whilst mine will gradually be superseded by other comments!
The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

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  1. Jim Donahue

     /  02/07/2013

    looks like a great trip!

  2. Kasia

     /  03/07/2013

    My boat shoes want to go back to Gheralta!! Stay there and we will come to see you again!!


    • Barbara S-C

       /  04/07/2013

      Well, stop press…it just so happens……home next year will be Bahir Dar -the Ethiopian riviera – perfect for boat shoes…

  3. HI Barbara, Great account of your trek last year … Mark

  1. Blog from VSO trekker in Tigray – Tesfa Tours
  2. Blog- VSO trek in Tigray | Tesfa Tours

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