The land of legends and wonders – the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant, the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa, trekking with troops of Gelada monkeys in The Simien Mountains – Ethiopia is a landscape full of unique wildlife and vast beauty. A specialist-led journey into the horn of Africa will leave you with one realisation: there is nothing quite like this place anywhere else on earth.
To embark on a journey through Ethiopia is to take a journey through time itself
Ethiopia is a destination simply unlike any other. Gelada Monkeys in The Simien Mountains, remote 10th century churches carved into the mountainside, lake monasteries and a fiercely independent history combine to produce opportunities for specialist-led travel that are completely unique.
Having experienced civil conflicts and communist purges during the 1970s through to the 1980s, Ethiopia’s economy suffered substantially in the years that followed. However, the country has since recovered and is now Africa’s fastest growing economy (by GDP). This growth has enabled the country to invest in roads, railways and dams, boosting electricity production and improving transportation in its capital city of Addis Ababa.
The only African country to have escaped colonialism (albeit briefly occupied by Italy), Ethiopia has retained much of its ancient customs and cultural identity to this day. The history of this fascinating country will have you captivated, and it all begins with Lucy – the fossil who rewrote the story of humanity. By exploring the museum that Lucy calls home, privately guided by a local anthropologist, you have the perfect base from which to embark on your journey around the country.
Several important hominid discoveries (Lucy being one of them) have propelled Ethiopia to the forefront of paleoanthropology – the oldest dating back to nearly 4.2 million years ago. And if the discovery of humanity alone isn’t enough to impress you, a visit to the 12th century monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela will add a layer of intrigue to your time exploring Ethiopia – a sacred site of Christianity and pilgrimage for thousands of worshipers. As much a contemporary site as a historic one, little has changed here since the time of the churches’ creation.
Ethiopia has a vast highland complex of mountains and dissected plateaus divided by the Great Rift Valley, and with a great diversity of terrain, one can expect variations in climate, wildlife, vegetation and most importantly, people. A visit to the traditional villages of the Lower Omo Valley will give you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to encounter some of Africa’s most fascinating ethnic groups.
Ethiopia may be a less obvious wildlife destination that the more traditional safari destinations. However a number of endemic species call the land home– from Africa’s rarest canid, the Ethiopian wolf of the Bale Mountains, to the Gelada monkeys near the northern plateau, and the elephants at Babille. The natural world of Ethiopia is as unique as its history.
Trekking opportunities are excellent. For those happy to forgo the trappings of luxury, there exists a shining example of community-run tourism. A multi-day hike through the highlands of Tigray, using simple community-managed guesthouses and showcasing how simplicity truly does enable the greatest of connections to a location when travelling. Venture to the longest cave system on the continent in the Sof Omar Caves.Ethiopia is the land for the true adventurers who are looking to immerse themselves in Africa’s most dramatic landscapes and fascinating cultures.
Regarding accommodation, while there are a handful of more luxurious offerings opening, Ethiopia is not a country for those seeking a chandelier safari. Tourism has seen a steady increase both in terms of volume and standards. However outside the main destinations, such as Lalibela, Simien Mountains and Bale, accommodation is of a basic standard. This should be of little concern to those who have already expressed interest in visiting Ethiopia – it is for the history, the landscapes and, most of all, the people that brought you here in the first place.
Where to explore
Located in the highlands bordering the Great Rift Valley, Addis Ababa is the capital city and cultural hub of Ethiopia. Africa’s fourth-largest city and its diplomatic capital, one could skip this sprawling city altogether. But then you would miss out on the best place to eat Ethiopian food and the fascinating museums that offer you an insight into this ancient and utterly unique destination.
Often overlooked by visitors, understandably, drawn to Ethiopia by its history is to spend time exploring a more contemporary side to the country. Addis Ababa is home to one of the most celebrated Jazz scenes to be found anywhere and fine art galleries showcasing internationally acclaimed artists. Using our contacts locally, we can arrange for you to meet the musicians, artists and other key personnel that drive this youthful undercurrent for Ethiopia.
People are drawn from around the world to walk among the gigantic rock stelae found in the small town of Axum. Exploring the remains of the ancient Axumite empire forms a major part of most journeys throughout Ethiopia.or those wishing to deeply understand the history of Ethiopia, it simple can’t be missed. Ethiopian belief suggests the city was in fact home to the Queen of Sheba herself. Historians question this, owing to the fact that she had passed away many centuries before the forming of the empire, let alone the building of Axum.
Historical disagreements aside, Axum is also suggested as playing host to The Ark of the Covenant, located specifically in The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. You won’t be able to see it however, for two reasons. Firstly, the Church remains under the watchful eye of the monk who has called it home for most of his life. Secondly, were you as a mere human to look upon the stone tablets handed down by God to Moses, you would suffer unimaginable consequences. But this is not the time nor the place to concern yourself with the material nature of seeing The Ark. The story itself, when in such surroundings, is evidence enough for most of us.
Bahir Dar and Lake Tana
It is true that some people refer to Bahir Dar as Ethiopia’s Riviera. ith no personal experience of the actual Riviera we could not comment. That being said, despite being the capital of the Amhara region and Ethiopia’s third largest urban area based on population, it is not for the city that people decide to come here.
The real reason for the vast majority of visits to Bahir Dar lies on the lake, a selection of small Coptic monasteries sporadically populating islands throughout the lake. The lake itself covers nearly 4,000 square kilometres and lies in a depression of the northwest plateau at approximately 6,000 feet. The water stored in the lake flows directly into the Blue Nile, which nearby forms the very impressive Blue Nile Falls. For guests wishing to visit the falls, we would recommend trying to tie it in on a Saturday as this will be the day of the local cattle market, which when combined with the falls themselves make for an excellent day out of the city.
While we would try to steer away from describing anywhere as “must-see” due to our conviction that only you can decide what you truly must see, if there were to be such a place (and there is) it would be Lalibela. Often described – incorrectly in our opinion – as a historical site, this misleads people from understanding they are as much in use today by priests and pilgrims as they were following their construction in the 12th Century.
Lalibela is the centre for pilgrimage and of religious devotion based in northern Ethiopia. During the time of the Zague Dynasty, Lalibela formed its capital city and was named after the monarch of the dynasty. Beyond questions, what draws people here is the collection of 11 monolithic churches, carved entirely below ground level. There truly is nowhere else like this anywhere that we know of, and if ever somewhere was deserving of the tag “must-see” then surely it must be here.
Gheralta and Tigray Region
Beyond the famed churches of Lalibela there are, in fact, another number of rock hewn churches, lesser known, smaller, at times significantly more difficult to access, yet in many ways even more impressive. Your willingness, or lack thereof, to scale vertical rock faces may well dictate exactly which churches you will visit (the more extreme of which, Abuna Yemata Guh, will require some technical climbing equipment to reach). The sheer extremity of this churches location is something hard to describe in words alone. To access the church itself you need to pass across a narrow ledge alongside a vertical drop of approximately 200 metres. Rest assured, for those with more terrestrial ambitions and interests the vast majority of the churches lie on the road between Adigrat and Mekele and are much simpler to access.
It is important to remember when visiting the rock-hewn churches of Tigray that their role is one of spirituality and worship, as churches should be, and not of tourism. Small donations to the priests will normally ensure access is permitted.
Previously the capital city of Ethiopia from 1632 to 1855, the remnants of the city’s statues are the main reason for our clients looking to visit Gondar. Whilst it is suggested that as many as 44 churches had existed in Gondar during the 18th century, few have survived. That being said, the city remains an important site for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The Royal Enclosure (Fail Ghebbi) is both the face and the beating heart of Gondar, containing six castles connected by tunnels and walkways. Fasilisad’s Castle would be considered by most to be the most impressive of the castles in the complex. Initially constructed circa 1640 the structure has undergone many restorations, most recently and somewhat more sympathetically, following funding from UNESCO.
Gondar’s position as a junction of sorts in Ethiopia has helped maintain its status as trade centre for the products of the surrounding subsistence farmers, whilst locally it is renowned for high levels of craftwork, such as textiles, jewellery and leather.
Simien Mountains National Park
Known as the ‘roof of Africa’ because of its scope and size, trekking the colossal mountain massif of the Simien Mountains is a popular draw for keen trekkers and casual walkers alike. With multi-day treks possible, using the public campsites on offer, we would encourage clients to make use of one of the nearby lodges instead due to the unpredictable nature of the campsites.
Inside the national park there a number of summits that tower overhead reaching altitudes of over 13,000 feet. The highest, and best known of the peaks is Ras Dashen. It is possible for keen trekkers to summit Ras Dashen without any additional climbing equipment However, allowances for the effects of altitude should be made.
The Gelada Monkey (often incorrectly called a baboon) is the most common species seen inside the park. In addition, however, you may come across the rare Ethiopian Wolf and incredibly rare Walia Ibex, whose nimble footwork on the surrounding cliff faces is quite a feat to behold.
Located in southeastern Ethiopia, The Bale Mountains National Park is a huge draw for hikers, nature lovers and for wildlife enthusiasts. Its location high in the Sanetti Plateau (rising over 4,000m) affords you access to cavernous gorges, glacial lakes, streams, waterfalls, swamps surrounded by volcanic peaks and the opportunity to observe the rare and endangered Ethiopian Wolf. Explore one of the highest parks in Africa by horseback, go fishing or join your guide as you explore the local community. It is possible to learn about the process of harvesting fresh honeycomb whilst you are here, something you may not have considered but a truly fascinating process.
Stretching from the Tigraian Highlands of Ethiopia to the border with neighbouring Eritrea, The Danakil Depression is one of the most inhospitable locations on Earth. It is the altitude, or lack of it, that contributes to the insufferably high temperatures here. At Dallol the altitude registers at a staggering 116 metres below sea level, the lowest point on the continent.
Tectonic forces have formed The Danakil to be the way it is today, having previously been submerged by the ocean. The resulting salt deposits have given rise to a salt extraction industry that has changed little for thousands of years. Miners extract the salt before loading them onto the “salt caravans” – camels, to you and me – before they will make their way to market in the cities and highlands of Ethiopia, following a trading route as ancient as economics. As the effects of modernity continue to be felt, however, traditional methods are under threat. A newly paved road has simplified access to the salt mining area, and the rugged adaptability and dependability of the traditional camel is becoming less useful than the velocity and increased carrying capacity provided by motorised transport.
Home to The Afar, a hardened people befitting a landscape such as this, historically it would be fair to suggest that their reputation is not one of hospitality. They have been known to show their dissatisfaction to the presence of their enemies by relieving them from the burden of their testicles.
The Danakil, clearly, is not a destination for the faint of heart. For those looking for a genuine sense of adventure however, there are few locations that go deeper than this.
In southern Ethiopia, the Omo River flows south across the border before reaching its final destination of Lake Turkana, the desert lake of northern Kenya. Before it crosses the border however it stakes its claim to being the lifeblood of a completely unique part of Africa, home to seven culturally distinct Nilotic tribal groups far removed from the rest of Ethiopia.
From the elaborate body painted Karo, to ever recognisable Mursi whose lip plates have become an object of fascination to many, to the Hamer, Ari, Tsemai, Dasanech and Bumi groups. This is a culturally complex area. Huge problems are being faced by these groups, upstream the understandable desire to harness the rivers power has led to the government approval of a number of large scale infrastructure projects in the shape of hydroelectric dams. These projects will dramatically harm the groups that call this area home, by disrupting the annual flood patterns the banks of the river no longer receives its annual mineral deposits. As such the pastoralists that rely on them are unable to grow their crops.
What the future holds for the tribes of The Omo Valley, is hard to say. Tourism has not always been delivered sensitively either. The, at times, predatory behaviour of certain photographic groups has led to customs and ceremonies being changed, or worse, created for their benefit. It is possible to enjoy an enriching, rewarding and socially responsible visit however, by aligning with some of the more sensitive projects in the valley who are owned and run by the tribes themselves, you can ensure your impact here is a positive one.
The best time to visit Ethiopia
The best time to visit Ethiopia is during the high season (January to March) with sunny skies and warm days. This season is great for wildlife watching and joining in on Ethiopia’s most colourful festivals including Timkat and Leddet. During the shoulder season, October to December, trekking is great with the wildflowers coming into bloom, birds arriving en masse and fewer visitors. The rainy season occurs during April to September in the southern region with scorching hot temperatures in the lowlands. During this time, visibility is often poor with overcast conditions making wildlife viewing a challenge.