When my friends in Lebanon convinced me that I had to go to Ethiopia, they specifically mentioned that I had to visit Lalibela. They said it was 1000 times more impressive than Petra. I hadn’t been to Petra yet, but that seemed a bit hard to believe!
Well, like everything in life, the good things take a bit of effort to achieve. A visit to Lalibela was no different. I should say that if money were no object, I could have flown from Addis Ababa and arrived in about 45 minutes. The flight wasn’t too expensive (even though they charge foreigners much more than locals), but still. I prefer going by land and I prefer to save money for experiences.
I left at 5am on a Monday morning for the bus station. The taxi there was almost as expensive as the full-day’s bus ride. There is no direct bus to Lalibela, and all options require an overnight stay along the way. Buses in Ethiopia aren’t allowed to travel at night. I presume it’s due to the poor infrastructure, mountainous terrain, and lack of lighting.
We departed at 6am for Dessie, a town about halfway to Lalibela. The views along the way were absolutely stunning. The pictures you take from the window of a bus never come out well, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But the scenery going north from Addis Ababa is breathtaking.
We stopped along the way in a village to eat breakfast and take a bathroom break. The village was quite rural and when the bus stopped a legion of vendors descended upon us. They were selling oregano in bags, oranges, bananas, something that looked like popcorn kernels but was softer, drinks, and then the children sold gum and small packets of tissues. The bathroom at the restaurant we stopped at would not exactly be rated five stars. There was no running water, so it was a commode in very rustic conditions. Still, I prefer a hole in the ground like this over an unclean Western-style toilet.
I spent the night in Dessie at a hotel for $9. There was a minibus in the parking lot of the hotel that was going to Lalibela the following morning. The bus station wasn’t far away, but for the extra $2.50 and the fact that it left an hour earlier than the public buses (5am vs 6am) it made more sense to take the minibus. I could get to Lalibela earlier, the minibus is more comfortable than a public bus, etc.
Well, theory isn’t always reality. It started out as me and two Danes heading to Lalibela. Along the way we picked up more people and dropped them off in various villages as well. At one point it was discovered that the seal for one of the windows was broken. I don’t know why this was of paramount concern, but while we stopped for breakfast they had the minibus repaired. This took two hours.
Ok, no problem.
We continued on and things went relatively well. But then we hit a largely uphill stretch of road and the minibus stalled out. We all got out and he still couldn’t get it up the hill. So we waited for an hour or 1.5 hours. Then they decided to see if pushing would work. Of course it did. So we pushed and he kept going and going until he hit a flat patch of road. We walked and walked until we met the minibus, got inside, and continued… until we hit another uphill patch. Repeat the pushing and the walking.
At some point it just wasn’t going to work anymore. Using my phone I saw we were only 30km/19mi from Lalibela, but we were stuck. The driver said he called another minibus to come and get us. By now it was 6pm, or 13 hours after we left Dessie (and a full 6-7 hours longer than it should normally take to make this journey).
There were vehicles going in the opposite direction, but none seemed to be going toward Lalibela. If we hadn’t had the window problem in the morning we probably could have caught another bus easily. But so late in the evening it was difficult. Finally, a truck with just a driver came by. The minibus driver gave him some money and the two Danes, a local girl, and I got in and headed the rest of the way to Lalibela.
In Lalibela I stayed at Red Rock Lalibela, a great budget option with modern amenities.
Returning from Lalibela, I took a public bus back to Dessie. Luckily, this bus had no major failures, though we did pull over a few times to have the driver inspect something. The problem is that the 60km road leading to/from Lalibela is a gravel road that must do a number on all vehicles.
There were a few police checkpoints along the way. In Ethiopia buses are not allowed to take more people than they have seats for. This seems logical, but almost everywhere I’ve been in the developing world, public transport is a mostly standing-room affair with seats only for the lucky. At each one of these checks, those without a seat left the bus. I don’t know if the driver was fined or not, but there was definitely discussions with the police.
The driver was incredibly kind though. When we stopped for lunch, I asked him how much time we had. He told me 30 minutes and told me to wait for him outside. He was going to a hotel and would take me with him so I could have lunch. I was very grateful since I would have had no idea where to eat in that town. After lunch we went next door for a coffee and he insisted on paying for my coffee. It was only about $0.25, but still. It was extremely kind.
There was a German girl on the bus too. We were the only foreigners on the bus and we talked a lot at lunch. In Dessie we had a beer and dinner. It’s always nice to meet fellow travelers on the road!
The following morning I caught the bus at 5am back to Addis Ababa. I could feel something was wrong with my stomach though. I felt exhausted. Getting up at 4:30am for four of the past five mornings will do that, but this was a deeper exhaustion. I didn’t really sleep much during the 8 hour journey back to Addis Ababa, but I tried to the whole way. It later turned out I had a bacterial infection in my intestines and I would have bad diarrhea for several days after this. I’m grateful it didn’t impact my trip to Lalibela and that when I returned to Addis Ababa I could quickly get tested and figure out what was going on.
So, a crazy week by all measures ending in illness for the millionth time on this journey.. but I know I’ll miss these kinds of weeks if/when I end up behind a desk someday!