Katie Parry wins this week’s Just Back travel writing competition and £250 for her account of a long trek in search of a seventh-century cave church.
“We are close.” The words have become meaningless. Mohamed, my guide, has been saying them every five minutes for more than four hours.
This moment is symbolic of my time in Ethiopia. The country whispers that beguilement and adventure are just around the corner, but they never arrive in the form that you expect. Up to this point I have spent most of my time either waiting for a bus or feeling giddily nauseous.
Head down, I continue to slog up the dust-covered hill. The landscape pulsates with the sort of bone-frying, mind-fugging heat that makes you forget that it is possible to feel cold.
Just as I conclude that we must be doomed, Sisyphus-like, to climb this slope for all eternity, we reach a terracotta plateau that rolls up to a dagger-shaped peak. Thankfully, this is not our target. We slide right through a crack in the rock and arrive at a squat iron-bound wooden door.
“He is not here.”
I cannot believe it. Dispirited, I flop into a precious patch of shade and sip tepid, metallic-tasting water.
Suddenly, Mohamed lets out a cry and points back the way we have just come.
A dark figure, clad in a long, flowing, white robe, is striding towards us. He carries a gnarled wooden staff in his left hand, and his greying beard is blown over his right shoulder by a breeze that seems to have sprung up precisely for that purpose.
When the priest reaches us, he sinks both of his hands into his robe. With one he pulls out a large, rough-wrought key of exactly the type that should unlock a seventh-century cave church. With the other, he pulls out an iPhone.
“My cousin saw you start your journey and called me.”
I wince. His accent is American, with a faint Boston twang, and clashes horribly with the flowing Amharic of my imagination.
My churlishness vanishes in the cool of the church. The interior is primrose-yellow and covered with biblical paintings. The three wise men ride their camels across the vaulted ceiling in search of a distant star. John the Baptist preaches to a crowd that entirely covers one of the six monolithic pillars.
And Jesus himself, his dark eyes cartoonishly large, stares down at us from scenes depicting each of his triumphs and disasters.
Reed matting deadens the sound of our footsteps. By unspoken agreement we do not speak; breaking the silence would feel like an act of violence. I meander aimlessly and open-mouthed with wonder, enjoying the delicious prickle of sweat drying on my back.
Here, finally, is the Ethiopia that I have been searching for. Few travellers, I am sure, will have made it up to this high, deserted plateau and into this perfectly preserved church.
As we turn for home, I spot some oddly straight lines on the ground. They trace the shape of an H. The priest notes my quizzical expression.
“Helicopter pad. George W Bush was here just last week.”
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