When your guide points out a tiny white speck high up in the Gherelta Mountain and tells you this is your destination….well, it is hard to believe. Until you start to hike. I'll tell you from the outset: this is one tough hike because the terrain is tough and unforgiving. My biggest tip would be to start out early: I would recommend a no later than 9 am start to give yourself ample time to navigate and make your way up. My next tip would be to get yourself a 4x4 which will take you as close to the base as possible versus a van which can only take you about 1km to the base thus increasing your walk time, all uphill.
The trek starts off with a gradual uphill incline before the real work begins: at the crack between two mountains, where you begin the ascent. Here begins some real leg work because you are literally climbing up and over boulders at an incline of about 45 degrees for a good 20 minutes at a steady pace before you get to the first cave which is flat and you can sit and catch your breath and ogle at how far up you have come in such a short time. From the cave, there there are some tough bits to navigate as you ascend even higher up: scaling almost vertical rock faces. These faces have toe and hand holds and your guide will direct you on where to place your hands and feet for the best grip but you still need to ensure that your grip is firm. A scout is a great help because he is super familiar with the terrain, and personally, found that the extra hand especially in the beginning helped get the adrenaline flowing. There are some tricky bits where you need to have upper body strength to help you up vertical rock faces, after which there are some flat parts along ledges with sheer drops and some more clambering over boulders before you finally get to Maryam Korkor, which is an unassuming white building perched at the top of the mountain.
A 5 minute walk along a ledge (quite wide and far from the vertical drop) is Daniel Korkor which I think is more beautiful than Maryam Korkor because of the frescoes on the ceiling and walls. The entrance is a tiny door carved into the mountain, and the church is small but has so much energy vibrating in it. You have to remove your shoes to go in, as is in all other Churches. It is also small enough that only one group can go in at a time but thankfully there aren't that many groups doing the hikes in Tigray and those that are - are nice enough to let you take your time.
The entrances into Maryam Korkor are different for men and women but eventually merge into a large hall with arches and an altar in the middle, closed by a curtain. There are also tombs where skeletons of what I assume are pilgrims are kept. The frescoes in this church are nice but don't really capture the imagination like the ones in Daniel Korkor do. The whole experience takes between 2 and 3 hours depending on your pace, and how much time you want to spend once at the top. The views are simply breath taking and it is worth taking the time to soak it all in - after the gruelling hike to the top!
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