Home' Rotary Down Under : October 2016 Contents LIFE & TRAVEL
| 54 | ISSUE 588 OCTOBER 2016
Home among the gum trees
Quick quiz: What do Ethiopia and Australia have in common?
Answer: Eucalyptus trees.
Yes, gum trees abound in the Ethiopian highlands that
constitute most of its landmass. But the question is, why
Ethiopia is an agricultural/pastoral land where most people
endure a harsh, subsistence life in a remote village. They construct
their homes and farm buildings in the ancient way of “wattle
and daub” – a wooden scaffold covered in a mixture of soil,
manure and straw, topped with a thatched, now increasingly
iron, roof. The timber frame is constructed with strong, straight
poles harvested from young gum trees. Personal plantations on
small plots dot the landscape, and the “ones that got away”
thrive in the towns and steep gullies in these high mountains.
Squint, and it’s like Australia.
Unlike Australia’s timber production, Ethiopia has a singular
purpose: strong, straight poles for building. Trees are not
thinned to encourage trunk growth; they are decapitated at
ankle height to harvest more upright stems, then stripped by
adze and dried into poles of varying lengths.
For the enterprising Ethiopian, gum trees make a good cash
crop. Every Saturday, hundreds of women, bowed down with
5m poles across their backs, walk for hours down mountain
roads to the town market. When confronted by a vehicle, they
gladly give way to take a well-earned sit-down, still fully loaded.
How and why Ethiopia came to be abundant in eucalypts is
explained to us in a little story (our tour guides explain things
with stories, earnestly delivered in rote fashion). Menelik II
(1844-1913), one of the last emperors, visited Australia in 1898
and was shown Australia’s fast-growing gum trees. He reasoned
they would be beneficial to replace the denuded forests around
his newly founded capital, Addis Ababa.
So he stole some seeds and hid them in his turban.
Never mind that eucalypts were first planted on Mt Entoto
(3200m), “the lungs of Addis”, in 1894 on the advice of
Frenchman Modan-Vilailhet... and that Emperor Menelik never
Ethiopians love telling stories – fantastic ones.
Laid stones pave a steep passage
to the entrance – through a dark,
15-metre-long, chiselled-out tunnel.
Stooped, we enter into a brightly sunlit
cut-out void open to the sky and on
one side to the horizon. A large chunk
of rock remains in the middle. It is a
traditional rock-hewn church, its roof
unfinished. The chanting room, usually
within the church, is carved into the
rock opposite, next to the tunnel.
Suddenly, a priest rushes past
putting on his regalia – which excludes
footwear – and unlocks the church
door, welcoming us in. He stands
proudly erect, and wordless, showing
us “the treasures”: bible stories with
gaudy-coloured explanatory pictures
and metal ceremonial crowns. It’s
the same routine for every Ethiopian
church carved out of rock. But we’re
here for this special place “close to
God”, and this extraordinary vista.
We mosey around. There seems
to be no visible means of support.
Bewnetu disappears. A smiley boy
carrying water containers stands
near a hut that grips the mountain
edge like a limpet, reminding me
that his village supports this religious
community. Next, I see a monk spread-
out in the dirt on the edge of the
carved-out void, level with the church
roof. He signals for alms... begging. I
have only a one-birr coin in my pocket,
worth 6 cents. He’s overjoyed. I know
that Ethiopian Orthodox monks are
high-status, learned clergymen, while
priests are often less sophisticated and
educated. Things are different in this
harsh, remote eyrie. My monk has
gnarled feet, torn tunic, wild eyes, and
looks a little disturbing.
An hour or more passes, mainly spent
mesmerised by the view, more often
seen by soaring eagles; terraced farms
cascade downwards to the middle
distance with row upon row of jagged
mountains, and shades of shapes in
the haze beyond. Bewnetu reappears.
It’s time to walk down about 1000m.
Despite the steep descent and some
hazardous rocky passages, it’s not too
difficult – for a fit person. Many older
Ethiopians skipping down this track
are 70-plus. It’s almost straight down,
cutting off this morning’s sharp road
bends. But walking through terraced
farmlands we see plots of vegetable
crops and, surprisingly, small fields of
wheat fenced off with gum trees... a
tiny slice of Australia (see sidebar).
Bewnetu knows the most scenic
spots for a welcome breather. Our
descent takes an hour, a third of
the time to walk up. The track ends
abruptly behind a shop on the main
street of Lalibela. A little weary, we
walk home full of wonderment.
“Next, I see a monk spread-
out in the dirt on the edge
of the carved-out void, level
with the church roof. He
signals for alms... begging.
I have only a one-birr coin
in my pocket, worth 6 cents.
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