The holy city of Lalibela, set on a highland plateau, is famous for its rock-hewn churches and ancient Christianity, writes Tim Dawe for The West Australian

By Tim Dawe (The West Australian) |

With every twist and turn wandering around Lalibela, it catches my eye. At the end of a distant mountain range is a rectangular slab of light-colored bare rock. It stands out (and up) like a shaft inserted from beneath; a crown for the highest peak.

Ambling down a dusty street with a lost donkey and a young girl bent double carrying sticks, or scrambling down a bush track to yet another steep-sided ravine, I see this shape out of the corner of my eye. At sunrise and at sunset it radiates light like a beacon over dusky-blue waves of other mountain ridges. It’s Mt Abune Yosef and its extraordinary presence dominates this town and the landscape.

Lalibela, set on the massive highland plateau north of capital Addis Ababa, is the cultural and religious heart of Ethiopia; it’s the highlight of any visit. This holy city is world-famous — UNESCO listed — for its rock-hewn churches and ancient Christianity. Following his visit to the Holy Land in the late 12th century, King (later, Saint) Lalibela built his capital as the “New Jerusalem”.

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On arrival, my wife and I meet our tour guide Bewnetu, who explains a change to the itinerary. Explanation is somewhat strained through accent and phrasing but I hear “going by mule or walking”. It becomes clearer two days later when Bewnetu wants a decision on walking or sitting astride a mule for the three-hour ascent to Asheten Maryam monastery … then he points to that beacon of rock far away on Mt Abune Yosef. We’re going there? Incredible. We opt to drive.

It’s a good decision to drive up the forested mountainside, quickly climbing 700m on a steep, zigzagged road. At a little village clinging to a precipice we leave the jeep and driver and continue on foot. Our shaded path is mainly a rock-face ledge, at times about a meter from a sheer drop to who knows where. But the views to sunny terraced farms are breathtaking. And climbing stone steps at this lung-busting altitude leaves me breathless.

Continue reading this story on The West Australian
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