Journey’s End – Across the Sahel
By Reza Pakravan
Ethiopia: Abuna Yamata Guh – Sky Church
Abuna Yamata Guh is a place that I will never forget. Hidden in the remote mountains of Gheralta in northern Ethiopia, Abuna Yamata is a monolithic church built on top of rocks and carved into the side of a cliff above a staggering 250 metre drop.
The road to the church snakes through the epic Gheralta Mountains. The scenery was beyond description and the mountains featured the most incredible rock formations. We got to the foothills. The road stopped. The climb started. The mountains were epic and magnificent. A Coptic Christian priest makes an incredible journey there every day, climbing sheer, steep cliffs barefoot and without a rope.
We started the challenging climb and after 45 minutes we made it to the cliff. Although I was a bit under the weather, the incredible scenery, fresh mountain weather and a surge of adrenalin perked me up. While climbing, I was thinking to myself: what must go through someone’s mind to compel them to build a church in the side of a cliff?
When we reached the cliff, I was asked if I wanted to climb with a harness or not. I opted for the harness. A hair-raising vertical free solo climb was not for me.
I started climbing with guidance from the locals, before the priest arrived and waited while I climbed. Since I was taking so long to climb, he decided that he was not having any of it and started to climb up to me, using foot holds. He was unbelievably fast, reminding me of Alex Honnold freeclimbing a sheer cliff. He overtook me with laughter. Without safety equipment, he climbed so quickly. It was no wonder – he had been doing this climb for 40 years.
‘You have to put your feet in exactly the place I am telling you and grip where I am pointing,’ my guide said.
With a bit of a guidance, I finally climbed the first wall. The second one followed, which was a bit easier. But then, thinking I was done with the scary parts, I had to endure a ledge on the cliff-face above a 300 metre (980 foot) sheer drop. It was so nerve-wracking that I could hardly breathe.
I finally made it to the church and met the smiling priest. The church was richly decorated with amazing murals that depicted the lives of the nine saints. Well-preserved scriptures from the 6th century written on goatskin (with the cover made of cow-skin) were kept in perfect condition, thanks to the low humidity and the shelter from sunlight.
As the sun began to set, I sat on top of the cliff overlooking this incredible landscape, thinking about the experience of this hidden gem in Ethiopia.
I left Ethiopia for the last country of my journey: the Republic of Somaliland…
Mountains of Somaliland
The Republic of Somaliland is a self-declared independent state, though internationally considered only as an autonomous region of Somalia. Most of the country is sparsely vegetated – typical of its semi-arid landscape – and the last thing I expected to see was the mountain range that rose between me and my destination, the Red Sea.
My climbing started from the town of Sheikh, a small mountain town at an elevation of 1,470 metres, which features the ruins of a British Army base. As I started my trek through the Sheikh mountains, the wildlife – including tortoises, warthogs and beautiful birds – was hard to miss. The temperature, hot at first, dropped significantly as I ascended. Sporadic Somali nomad settlements appeared in the lower elevations, with livestock in abundance. My only way to refill my water supply was to rely on the nomads. Despite their rather strict culture, nomads nonetheless invited me to spend a night in their tent with their families.
The following morning was fresh. For the first time on the whole journey, I considered wearing a second layer of clothing. I climbed, and as I gained altitude, the landscape became greener and the mountains more scenic. I realized that I had never been so far away from the company of humans since arriving in Africa. Up in the mountains, there was no one to talk to, nor even any paths to follow, only the gentle wind which carried occasional birdsong. On either side of me, sheer drops, hundreds of metres deep, plunged down to the shallow rivers below. As I walked along the edge of the mountain, I could smell the sea in the distance and, with it, the end of my journey. It inspired excitement, generated adrenalin, and I knew it was time to descend, down to the desert which would lead me to the sea, to finish my 5,000-mile journey across the African continent with a welcome swim in the Red Sea.
While the world’s media tends to focus on war and conflict in the Sahel, my aim was to tell its untold stories, of people and traditions that have stood the test of time. An alternative narrative. Mother Africa might be complicated, often difficult, but there is nowhere else on Earth like it. I had seen the most incredible things there but, more importantly, I had met the most incredible people. They came from a plethora of different races, religions and ethnicities. And yet, despite that, I overwhelmingly experienced a common thread connecting us all. That thread was humanity, kindness. We live in an age where we are told to fear difference. But, in the Sahel, I found few things which divided us, and found far more which connected us.