When Wellington grandmother Deirdre McFarland set her heart on travelling to a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia to see the medieval rock-hewn churches, nothing was going to stop her.
Proposed by Unesco as the eighth wonder of the world, the extraordinary cluster of 12th and 13th century cave churches in the holy town of Lalibela are carved from top down from single blocks of granite, and are the biggest monolithic temples in the world.
Years ago, McFarland planned a trip to see them with a friend, but her travel companion later pulled out. “Simply put, I think her husband got worried about the safety of two women in Africa,” she says.
Second time around, McFarland, who turns 75 in January, booked with a tour group but the trip was later cancelled. “I thought, well if I want to go to Ethiopia, and I need to go to Ethiopia – I will just go to Ethiopia on my own”, says McFarland, a retired librarian.
Her friends all told her she was mad; in the past Ethiopia has been unsettled as various droughts and famines lead to civil unrest and border wars. But undeterred about travelling intrepid in her twilight years – McFarland simply booked a ticket, and a female driver and guide.
“There was a point when I was walking down the path to the airport with my bags that I thought, ‘um, I wonder if this is sensible’? But what’s the alternative – I’m not just going to sit at home and get old. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, so I thought I’d better do it before I am 90.”
Travel has always been in McFarland’s blood. After graduating from University with an arts degree, she lived in the United Kingdom and Greece for three years before she was married.
She lost her husband Malcolm three years ago, but after he retired the couple rarely sat still. “Travel opens up your horizons – and Malcolm and I travelled well together,” laughs McFarland. “He let me pick what I wanted to do and then he just followed along behind.”
The couple’s last big trip together was six weeks in Iran in 2013. “Everyone said to us, you can’t go to Iran, people will kill you – but we said no, and it is a wonderful place, the people were so friendly.”
In recent years, she has travelled with her daughter Louise; the pair has been to Peru, the Galapagos Islands and Mexico. McFarland says although she would rather travel with a companion, she thinks nothing of going solo.
“Malcolm was a Ship’s Captain – and used to go away to sea for six months every year so I’m used to being on my own and I’ve been independent all my life,” she says. “I don’t know how he would feel about Ethiopia, but I guess I don’t need to worry about that anymore.
Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa, is a rugged, landlocked country split by the Great Rift Valley.
It is Africa’s oldest independent country (and has never been colonised apart from five-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy) and its second most populous, with a population of 102 million.
Tourists certainly don’t beat a well-worn path to Ethiopia, but for those who visit many are drawn to its archaeological finds dating back more than three million years, and a unique cultural heritage as the home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian churches.
Mystery surrounds the rock-hewn underground churches of Lalibela. Some locals believe the extraordinary structures – which are plunged 40 to 50 metres into the earth and then stamped with crisscross shaped holes to let the light into their hollowed-out interiors – were built by angels.
According to legend, they were excavated during the reign of Geber Mesqel Lalibela, who ruled Ethiopia at the beginning of the 13th century AD. Another school of thought is that the group of eleven churches was formed as a ‘New Jerusalem’ after Muslim conquests made travel to the Holy Land unsafe.
Wherever the truth lies, McFarland admits she’s been fascinated with the architectural wonders since she watched a documentary several years ago.
“The churches were the driving force for me going to Ethiopia and it was incredible to not just see them but take your shoes off and step inside,” she says. “They aren’t museums, they are living and breathing churches, and there is a service in them every day.”
The churches stand in two groups, divided by the river Jordan. On the north side stands Byte Medhani Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), Biete Mariam (House of Mary), Biete Maskal (House of the Cross), Biete Denagel (House of Virgins), Biete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha Mikael).
To the south of the river there is Biete Amanuel (House of Emmanuel), Biete Qeddus Mercoreus (House of St. Mercoreos), Biete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos), Biete Gabriel Raphael (House of Gabriel Raphael), and Biete Lehem (House of Holy Bread).
An eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis (House of St. George), stands apart from the others, but is connected to them by a series of trenches.
Pilgrims – including the blind and the disabled – travel for days along hot and winding hill roads to visit at least once in a lifetime.
“One we went into had a priest carrying a holy cross, and the locals believed if they rubbed it their bad ailments would be healed,” says McFarland. “There was an old woman in there with bad legs – and I didn’t see her get up and run away afterwards but I’m sure she felt better when she got home.”
An unexpected highlight of McFarland’s trip was the Simien Mountains National Park, located in the Semien (North) Gondar Zone of the Amhara Region.
Massive erosion on the Ethiopian plateau has created one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world – with razor-sharp mountain peaks, deep valleys and incredible precipices dropping some 1500 metres.
The park is home to some extremely rare animals such as the Gelada baboon, the Simien fox and the Walia ibex, a goat found nowhere else in the world.
For McFarland, the park was a different world.
Although many visitors hike through, she viewed its wonders from the comfort of her vehicle.
“I’m not much of an action woman, and I did ask my guide as we drove past groups of hikers huffing and puffing – ‘tell me, what would they see that I won’t?’ She told me, ‘absolutely nothing’.
“We saw troops of 80 baboons – magnificent animals just sitting the grass and eating madly. You can get out and walk among them if you want – I thought for a minute, ‘how sensible would this be?’ and ‘then oh well who cares!’ None of them took the slightest notice of me.”
Although she travelled alone, McFarland ate most evenings with her guide – which not only kept the loneliness at bay, but was a good chance to learn more about Ethiopia’s fascinating history.
She says she enjoyed the food, which were mostly stews and soups. “My favourite was a ginger and carrot soup, which I know we have here but I thought afterwards if I had that soup in a three-star Michelin restaurant I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
A stand out evening was in a restaurant outside Lalibela where McFarland and her guide were given a carafe of local honey wine. “It went down very easily and I ended up in a nightclub with the locals dancing to some traditional drumming,” she laughs.
In all, it was an action-packed fortnight in Ethiopia, and a great success as McFarland’s first major sojourn alone. Never one to sit still for long, her and her adult daughter Louise are planning a trip in 2018 to Caucasus, a region between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. “I figure there’s no point having money in the bank when you’re dead,” she says.
Although her Ethiopian odyssey is etched in her mind forever, McFarland’s take-home keepsake is a thick gold cuff. “I will never forget Ethiopia, but the cuff is a daily reminder,” she says. “It’s on my wrist every day and yes, – I’ve even worn it to bed. All I need now is one on the other wrist and I will be Wonder Woman.”
Alison Horwood is a journalist and TV producer who also works as communications advisor for the House Of Travel group in Wellington.
Deirdre travelled to Ethiopia with Adventure Travel on Willis Street in Wellington. To contact a travel expert phone (04) 494 7180 or email email@example.com