Ethiopia is a land of many contrasts, both historically, geographically and culturally. Peppered with historical treasures and many traditional and tribal cultures, as well as various endangered species, a holiday to Ethiopia is one of the most fulfilling and exciting adventures a seasoned explorer can embark upon!
Away from the crowds and untouched by many western influences, each time I go to Ethiopia the sheer breath-taking beauty of the country overwhelms my senses. After visiting many times, I would like to share my recommendations of my favourite places to visit in Ethiopia:
The Gheralta Mountains form a backdrop to one particular area of scattered monasteries and shrines that are of biblical interest. The Tigray district is breath-taking to visit!
Here, more than 121 cliff churches have been carved into rock, a process which took place between the 4th and 11th centuries. The most exciting thing is that many of the churches are still used every day for worship!
Eighty of these churches date from the 5th to 14th centuries, whilst others dating from the 6th to 10th centuries are some of the oldest surviving wood and masonry structures. Some are now supported due to hundreds of years of aging and rain corrosion.
Around 95% of Tigrayans practise Ethiopian Christianity and unlike other African countries that where influenced by colonial era Europeans, Ethiopia was influenced far earlier through the Mediterranean world from the 4th century – even earlier than some parts of Europe.
Visiting the cliff churches is not necessarily easy; while you can visit many historical and archaeological interests reasonably simply, you would have to be a mountain goat to reach others! But it is well worth the effort, if you can manage it, and when I braved the ladders to climb up to some of the more lofty churches I was rewarded with the most stunning views of the surrounding region.
Not only were services held daily, they also housed a substantial number of materials such as 6th century crosses, manuscripts, and paintings - some on fans made of goat hide! One I saw dated from the 11th century. There were also ancient drums and sistras.
Each and every church is different in style, story and setting. Each has one or more dedicated monks, some who rarely come down from their monasteries, or who make a sometimes treacherous climb up and down each day.
One of the most exciting churches to see here is the Temple of Yeha, the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia, which lies between Axum and Adigat in the far north.
Seemingly on top of the world at an altitude of around 3500-4350 metres, the Simien Mountains are simply stunning. The beautiful landscapes stretch out before you for hundreds of miles and there are canyons plunging hundreds of metres into valleys with rivers and waterfalls.
The Simiens have both highland and lowland habitats providing a wide range of birding opportunities. You will be accompanied by guides with excellent knowledge of the local birdlife and one can almost be sure to see lammergeyer, who are highly endangered but seem to do well up here.
About 180 bird species have been counted in these mountains. Other species to look out for include Abyssinian Catbird and Abyssinian Longclaw. The best time of year for bird watching is between October and December.
When I visited we took daily walks with our specialist guide across the plateaus and to the waterfalls, taking it slow due to the altitude. (Drinking lots of water helps too). My absolute favourite species to see was the gorgeously hairy gelada baboons, who are not a true baboon but a monkey of their own order.
They sit on the plateaus in large family groups to graze during the day before retreating to the ‘safety’ of the cliff faces to sleep at night. One can also see endemic Walia ibex and other wildlife such as the occasional Ethiopian wolf.
On our walks through the mountains we were able to interact with the shepherds that live in these high altitudes tending their flocks of sheep that eat the lichen, moss and short grasses. Through our guide we found out that the shepherd’s children spend many days on the mountain and they sleep in caves to keep warm overnight.
I particularly enjoyed a walk to the Jinbar waterfalls, where we had a picnic overlooking the spray. From here it was possible to see the highest point in the Simiens, Ras Dashen at 4543 metres.
Within the park there is a good lodge to stay in with large fireplaces in the main building and there is also another lodge on the edge of the park with beautiful views on the edge of the escarpment. Both lodges promote sustainable tourism with minimal environmental impact, and provide work opportunities to the local community.
Axum, founded in the 4th century BCE, is home to the oldest Christian sanctuary. Axum has a field of seven ancient stelae located just outside of town, but the most impressive stelae, measuring over 33 metres high and weighing about 500 tonnes, lies on the ground having fallen and broken.
The most notable now is the second-largest stelae. This 26 metre obelisk was cut into pieces during the Italian occupation in World War Two and under personal orders of Mussolini, it was removed, transported and re-erected in Rome. In 2005, after much negotiation between the Italian and Ethiopian Governments, the stelae was returned to Axum where it stands once again.
We also visited the palace ruins of the Queen of Sheba, and the church of Saint Mary of Zion (Tsion Mariyam). This UNESCO Site is where myth and legend states the Ark of the Covenant rests. Other sites to be seen include the Tomb of the Mausoleum, the Axum Museum, King Ezana’s Park and King Basens Tomb.
Lalibela is home to 11 sunken rock-carved churches created approximately in the 12th and 13th centuries. These were painstakingly carved out of solid rock in four groups. The churches all have their own story and many are linked – often by dark tunnels.
The most famous, St Giorgis, has a “roof” which has been carved into a beautiful cross shape, and is considered the most beautiful and best preserved of the monolithic churches.
We were lucky enough to witness a religious ceremony taking place – the melodious chanting of the monks was mesmerising. One can meet the monks, priests and most likely pilgrims who may stay in a small cave for weeks near the monasteries.
The Danakil Depression lies in a fault inside the Great Rift Valley and sits at more than 100 metres below sea level. Here there are brightly coloured sulphurous springs, acid lakes and vast salt pans.
There is also a volcano, Irta Ale, which has been continuously erupting since 1967. This volcano holds a permanent lava lake in its small southern crater.
Whist visiting you may be lucky enough to see the local nomadic Afar tribes bringing their camel trains to the Depression’s salt pans. They mine the pans, working tirelessly to dig the blocks of salt in what are some of the hottest temperatures known on the planet. They then transport them back in camel trains across the desert to trade.
My favourite way to see this amazing area is by private helicopter, where the whole landscape stretches out before you and you can see the vivid colours of the chemical deposits in the acid lakes.
Bale Mountains National Park is one of the best in the country yet it is little-visited. Known for its wildlife, it is one of the last remaining homes of the Ethiopian wolf, which has approximately 380 individuals left here. There was also a new species of monkey discovered here in 1995, called the Bale monkey, which is found alongside the black and white Colobus monkeys in the rainforests.
The habitats are fascinating and the outer edges of the National Park have fortress-like pinnacles, then on one mountain top there is a vast barren plateau.
In other areas the species we saw included juniper and hygenia woodlands and forests and Afro montane forests and landscapes. There are such amazing contrasts of the habitats and therefore the different species of birds and mammals that one can see.
In the Gaysay valley we saw warthog, Menelik bushbuck, Bohor reedbuck and mountain nyala and Rogets rail. On the high plateau we saw blue-winged goose and Verreux eagle, whilst down in Harenna Forest, there was speckled pigeon, thick billed raven and black winged lovebird.
The Omo Valley, located in the far south-western corner of Ethiopia bordering the Turkana region of Kenya, homes some of the most fascinating and unique tribes in all of Africa who have maintained their way of life, unchanged for centuries.
To venture here is a journey that will open your eyes to a land not often experienced elsewhere. You explore with a knowledgeable local guide who is a native to a local tribe but has earned the trust of many other groups too.
One can meet the Mursi, the Karo and the Hamer and maybe other local people in a non-invasive way; a true cultural exchange where they are as interested in your way of life as you are in theirs. We were fortunate enough to witness a ceremony where many members of a tribe came together from different villages to celebrate over several days, dancing and singing in the evenings as night fell.
Many of the tribes practise body modifications for decoration or marking of life events. Some use scarification, or have lip and ear plates. Other tribes paint themselves in vivid clay paints according to their own preferences. Still others adorn their hair with complicated and intricate beads, feathers and wires.
This is a journey through the outback, the great discovery of tribes, great expanses, to a world that still just exists, therefore back to the true meaning of exploration and to a world where the locals may just have the clothes on their back (if any), and a blanket, their only possessions beside beads, cattle and livestock. They live on and with the land.
Despite their reluctance for change, sadly it is coming anyway. New hydroelectric dams are being built which will change the landscape and livelihood of the tribes that live off the lands bordering the Omo River.
Bahir Dar rests on the shores of Lake Tana and is one of Ethiopia’s largest cities with wide avenues, palms and jacarandas and stunning lake views. For centuries Bahir Dar has been a trading centre for the region and the tankwa (traditional papyrus boats) can still be seen transporting goods across the lake.
You can enjoy a boat cruise on Lake Tana to the 14th century island monasteries of Ura Kidan Mihret and Azwa Mariam. These are home to important collections of crosses and crowns dating back to the 14th century. The walls have colourful murals which were painted on fabric and then stuck to the rock centuries ago.
Whilst here, my top tip is to visit the Blue Nile Falls about 30km downstream from Lake Tana. Locally called Tis Issat, meaning ‘The Great Smoke’, these waterfalls vary between 37 and 45 metres high, and consist of four individual streams of water which reach 400 metres wide in the rainy season.
Additionally if you are interested in cultural exchange, then my favourite way to meet the local people is to visit the fish market or general market. Just watch where you step and its best to wear closed shoes!
Gondar lies north of Lake Tana, sitting at a height of 2133 meters. When driving from Lake Tana to Gondar, there is a beautiful crater lake where you can stop for mid-morning tea.
Gondar was the previous capital of Ethiopia and is best known for the Royal Enclosure, where most of its castles and ruined royal residences lie. Because of the style of the castles, Gondar is often referred to as the Camelot of Africa.
One can explore the 17th and 18th century Gondar palaces in their seven hectare walled enclosure, and the vine-swayed Empress baths. No visit to Gondar is complete without a visit to Debre Berhan Selassie church with its angel painted ceiling.
The capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa is perfect for a night’s rest after a long flight. Although most travellers only overnight here, there are several places of real interest that warrants an extra day, if not only to simply relax after a long flight and acclimatise to the altitude as well. Addis Ababa sits at 2355 metres, one of the highest cities in the world.
Apart from a plethora of luxury hotels where you can recuperate, if you would like to explore the city, one of my favourite places to visit is the National Museum, which holds the fossilized remains of the most famous Australopithecus afarensis – "Lucy" who is around 3.3 million years old. The Cathedral and Merkato Market are also worth a visit.
It is wonderful to interact with the local people, and a special place to visit is a blind women’s self-help group where they make pottery. In the evening you can also have a traditional Ethiopian dinner and see a spectacular local dance ceremony.
Ethiopia is vast and there is so much to see but it is spread out across the various regions and habitats of the country. Therefore if you want to experience everything that Ethiopia has to offer, I highly recommend a helicopter safari. This is in my opinion the best way to make the most of your time and simultaneously give you stunning aerial views of the diverse landscapes.
However you choose to travel in Ethiopia, it is surely a fascinating country which has so much to offer. Please do feel free to contact me for more information.
Images kindly provided courtesy of Tropic Air and Limalimo lodge and copyright to Mario Balducci and Michael Waidmann