This was the best birthday party ever.
An English friend of mine living in New York celebrated a big birthday by inviting three women friends of a similarly unmentionable age from either side of the Atlantic to the opening of a school high up in the Ethiopian mountains.
En route we would visit the subterranean churches in Lalibela for the biggest festival in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church year: Timkat.
Bete Giyorgis, one of the subterranean churches at Lalibela, where Timkat was celebrated
Timkat is the biggest festival in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Pictured is another view of Bete Giyorgis
My friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, first visited Ethiopia 40 years ago.
As a young management consultant, she and two colleagues rode round the Simien Mountains on donkeys to see whether the area would be a suitable tourist destination.
They decided that the mountains, though magnificent, were too remote. But the country made a lasting impression on her.
So that’s how I found myself at 5am watching preparations for a mass baptism, just outside Lalibela.
First came dozens of deacons, wearing white turbans and robes, who assembled around what looked like a large crucifix-shaped paddling pool.
They were followed by drummers, and then priests wearing brocade cassocks and carrying embroidered umbrellas that glittered in the morning sun.
After much chanting, a bishop blessed the water and hundreds of worshippers wearing white shawls surged forward to be sprayed with fire hoses.
During the day, priests took the holy tablets, bearing the ten commandments, out of the churches and carried them round the town in joyous processions.
At the front were teenagers dancing and waving sticks, then more sedate children dressed as mini priests.
As a young management consultant, Elinor’s friend visited the Simien Mountains on donkeys to see whether the area would be a suitable tourist destination
They were followed by relays of boys who rolled, and unrolled, a red carpet so that the priest carrying the tablets never trod on the ground.
In the background the deacons swayed in unison playing curious percussion instruments that looked like cheese graters.
Behind them came ululating crowds. Among them was the occasional tourist, usually grey-haired.
None of the women in our group actually had grey hair thanks to the skills of their hairdressers back home, but we were all of pensionable age.
For it’s one of the paradoxes of Ethiopian tourism that it tends to appeal to the grey market as it’s the retired who can afford the time and money to go there. Yet physically it’s quite a demanding place.
To get to the churches you have to descend 40ft or so down perilous steps, as the buildings were carved from ground level downwards out of single blocks of rock, and each sits in its own pit.
Devout: Orthodox clergymen in Lalibela with their embroidered umbrellas and traditional robes at a celebration
Precisely when they were built is a matter for debate, but at least 800 years ago.
Who built them is also disputed – man or angels – but they are architectural miracles with great straight pillars, domed ceilings and windows letting in shafts of dusty light. Each one represents an aspect of the Bible story.
To reach one of the most beautiful, Bet Emanuel, you go through a pitch-black tunnel, which represents purgatory, practically bent double.
We emerged into a courtyard to find that the procession carrying the tablets had just emerged from another tunnel.
By this time the dancing youths were high on the Holy Spirit or something stronger and the pit was turned into a whirling discotheque, with drums banging and trumpets blasting.
That evening we dined at a restaurant run by an extraordinary Scottish woman called Susan Aitcheson.
Tourism is developing in the Simien Mountains National Park, where visitors have the opportunity to see animals like the Gelada monkeys
Six years ago, at the age of 58, she quit her job as a domestic science teacher in Lanarkshire and went to help open a school in Ethiopia, miles from anywhere.
‘It was that or bridge.’
She then went into partnership with an Ethiopian to build a restaurant serving Scottish and Ethiopian food. Not satisfied with that she then started scholarship funds to help educate poor kids.
All day we had been surrounded by beautiful black-eyed children asking for money, so we asked her how we could help them without encouraging begging.
‘Don’t fall for the book scam,’ Susan warned in a strong Lanarkshire accent. ‘They will persuade you to buy them a dictionary and sell it back to the bookseller the next day.’
She was right, unlike the Americans, who were nobody’s sucker, I had bought a beguiling boy a dictionary and, the next day, there it was, back on the shelf.
Ethiopia’s first ‘conservation school’, 12,000ft up on the edge of Simien National Park (pictured), is accessible by only the toughest off-road vehicle
I gave Susan some money for her fund, but my friend’s contribution to Ethiopian education was far bigger.
She has gone into partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation to build Ethiopia’s first ‘conservation school’, 12,000ft up on the edge of Simien National park, and accessible by only the toughest off-road vehicle.
She was welcomed by children wearing clothes that looked as if they had come out of the bottom of a recycling bin.
But they weren’t showing obvious signs of malnutrition and were dancing in excitement, the older boys’ shoulders twitching like demented angels.
They had prepared a poster thanking my friend and her family for their new school. We all had tears in our eyes.
The deal was that the foundation would develop the school if the villagers agreed to keep their animals out of the park so that the magnificent landscape could recover from years of overgrazing, and provide a habitat for some unique threatened species.
Living on the edge: Gelada monkeys in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. The primates can only be found in the African country
Initially I was worried that these subsistence farmers would find their traditional way of life threatened by the deal. Their animals have little enough to eat as it is.
So, as an ex-television journalist, I borrowed a translator and did a quick vox pop. One man said he had been worried about the loss of grazing, but that he was glad his son would have the chance to have an education.
Tourism is developing in the park.
We stayed at a hotel, Limalimo Lodge, run by a young Ethiopian man and his English wife. It is one of the highest hotels in Africa and has views of a landscape that look as if the skin of the Earth has been removed to reveal the skeleton.
As we posed with the area’s gelada monkeys, I saw another grey-haired European couple slogging up a mountain track, puffing in the thin air. You do need to be fairly robust to get the most out of Ethiopia.
For Elinor, it’s one of the paradoxes of Ethiopian tourism that it tends to appeal to the grey market but physically it’s quite a demanding place
My friend, and two of the women from Manhattan, power walked up a mountain one morning. The next day, however, one went down with a stomach upset and had to be practically carried on to the plane for the next stage of our trip.
I probably reinforced the stereotype of a feeble Englishwoman by retiring early on several nights owing to sun stroke and a cold.
Some other national differences did emerge – the Americans suffered separation anxiety when unable to get an internet signal, for example.
But, amazingly, we all got on, bonded by a bottomless appetite for shopping, a certain philanthropism; a determination to defy the gravity of age, and a gratitude to our friend for opening our eyes to this extraordinary country.
Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk, 020 3642 0861) offers a seven-night tailor-made itinerary to Ethiopia from £2,095pp.
This includes all flights, transfers, B&B accommodation at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Addis Ababa and full board in Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela and Limalimo Lodge in the Simien Mountains.
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