Ethiopia is one of those countries that you’ve heard about but know little of its history and peoples. Most will vaguely remember the famine of 1983 and then Ethiopia seems to have dropped off the radar to all but intrepid travelers.
Much of Ethiopia’s history and historical dates are disputed. Known as Abyssinia for most of its history, sometime in the 1900’s, the name was changed to Ethiopia but one will find various dates for that as well as multiple spellings for cities throughout the country. Maps, guidebooks, hotels and road signs will all have various spellings of cities, e.g. Gondar will also be spelled Gonder within the city itself.
We were fortunate to explore the country with Jacaranda Tours right after Indaba but 7 days is simply not enough time to adequately experience Ethiopia, visit all the historical sites and view wildlife…there is so much to do and see!
Considered the birthplace of humanity with the discovery of Lucy in 1974, this East African Rift Valley area has yielded many fossils important to creating a timeline of modern humans as well as stunning landscapes, the Blue Nile and a rich variety of wildlife and birds. In May another new species of humanoids was discovered in Ethiopia: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32906836
Ethiopia is steeped in Christianity from biblical times including Queen of Sheba bearing King Solomon’s son and the Ark of the Covenant being brought to the country where it is believed to still reside. The Axumite Empire was one of the more advanced civilizations and important trade routes between the 1st and 7th centuries AD so one will find Greek and Arab influences throughout their culture. Ethiopia is the one country in Africa that was never colonized and hence preserved its authenticity. Much of the country is still rural with a very strong familial culture.
After spending our first night in Addis Ababa, we took a short flight to Bahir Dar. There you can visit 17th century monasteries on islands in Lake Tana via an hour boat ride. The monasteries are rather plain looking from the outside but the interiors will surprise you with the myriad of paintings and carvings. It’s amazing that villagers still worship there regularly with monks and priests living on the different compounds. There is a long history of Christianity and Ethiopians all over the country are devout in their worship today.
We drove through Gondar on our way to the Simien Mountains where the gelada monkeys, sometimes referred to as baboons, are plentiful. I thought their behavior was bonobo-like and was amazed at how easily you could walk amongst the group with little interest from them. The Simien Mountains are stunningly beautiful and I could easily spend days there hiking and viewing wildlife.
I was quite surprised at the high altitude there and throughout the country. As you fly and drive throughout Ethiopia, you will see many different terrains that are quite beautiful. The saying, “wait 15 minutes and you’ll be in a different ecosystem” definitely applies here.
From our too short time in the Simien Mountains we drove back to Gondar for the afternoon and night. I unfortunately missed the afternoon excursion to Gondar’s famous castle, Fasil Ghebbi, which I hear it was most impressive and with surprisingly European architecture.
The next morning we flew to Lalibela, home of the world famous rock-ewn churches. I would say Lalibela is the “Petra” of Ethiopia and is a must see while in country. There are 14 churches carved out of stone below ground with one legend saying they were carved by angels in one day and another legend saying Freemasons built them. Some sources estimate that it took 40,000 craftsmen to excavate these churches. Mysterious for sure! The locals still worship in these churches on Sunday morning, which was quite the experience to see all the women in their finery and white scarves. Bet Giyorgis is the most spectacular of the churches and not to be missed along with the tunnels. You will see many similar paintings from the monasteries in Bahir Dar.
The highlight of the trip for me was Bale Mountains, again with a surprisingly high altitude over 14,000’. As stunning and majestic as I thought the Simien Mountains were, I was simply enchanted with the Bale Mountains. Driving through the cloud forest was a treat and the lushness of the forest was unforgettable along with the barren plateau. Both mountain ranges, each with its unique beauty and wildlife, are not to be missed.
The Ethiopian wolf is the most endangered carnivore in Africa and the rarest wolf on Earth. They live in the Sanetti Plateau at around 13,500’+ in a fiercely wind-blown area with scrub brush and giant mole rats as their main food source. It was thrilling to see them – 2 sightings for a total of 4 wolves. Full disclosure, they look like red foxes that I see in the Boulder area!
People: Friendly, lovely, proud and yet different from East Africa. Apart from the language barrier, Ethiopians are eager to interact with travelers.
Food: Plentiful, with many international dishes as well as local food. In recent years, Ethiopian food has become vogue with Ethiopian restaurants popping up in unexpected smaller cities. We actually met 3 American travelers who chose to travel throughout Ethiopia over other African destinations because they love the food so much! I may be one of the few people who don’t like the grain, tef, which is what injera is made from – that’s the spongy bread you scoop Ethiopian food up with. My fellow travelers loved it. Ethiopians will tell you it’s the injera that makes their runners so fast and strong! As a vegetarian I ate well. I learned that Ethiopian Christians fast around 150+ days a year from breakfast until dinner, meaning they eat no meat during those meals but they can eat beans and vegetables. On any menu there is a “fasting plate” with delicious lentils, chickpeas, veggies, etc. that is perfect for vegetarians. I was gauche and ate with a fork instead of the injera, but no one seemed to mind or asked me to leave! You’ll find local beers, nice wines and other liquors at the restaurants and hotels.
Lodging: Very basic. Outside of Addis Ababa, actually hotels are rather dowdy and dingy. My summation: think of a Motel 6 built in the early 1970’s and that is what most hotel rooms look like with the same furniture, linens and paint on the walls…lol. We did many site inspections and gave Jacaranda Tours our recommendations for North American travelers. They will be the best of what’s available. However, Jacaranda Tours is building new lodging throughout the country and will soon announce a partnership with a major lodging management company.
Bale Mountain Lodge: The most charming, delightful place we stayed in the entire country! Definitely on a par with wonderful East Africa lodges with charming bungalows, gracious service and superb chef. Owned and managed by a British ex-pat couple who know what they’re doing. Stay here a couple of days and make the long drive back to Addis Ababa without stopping over en-route.
Wildlife: Several safari companies are chomping at the bit to enter the Ethiopian market. We heard from one major African operator that wildlife in Ethiopia excited them more than any other destination! In addition to the gelada monkeys and Ethiopian wolves, the bulk of wildlife are in the Rift Valley and the South where we did not go. The famed tribes are in this area also, so my next exploratory trip to Ethiopia will be in the South Omo Valley. Outside of viewing the Ethiopian wolf, the game drives in Bale Mountains will be disappointing to safari goers as you can only drive on the main road which is also a main traffic route. Ethiopia will need to develop its national parks with game drive routes along the lines of other African safari locations if they want to be a wildlife destination. Other endemic wildlife to Ethiopia: mountain nyala, Walia ibex and Somali wild ass. 800 bird species are found in Ethiopia along with leopard, cheetah, Abyssinian lion with black manes, jackal, hyena, many antelope species, primates, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, black rhinoceros, hippos and more.
Jacaranda Tours: Definitely first rate with the knowledge and passion for sharing their country. Owned and managed by Ethiopians, attention to detail and authenticity are key factors in their itinerary development. They drive new, comfortable vehicles with delightful drivers and guides and are keen on developing tourism in Ethiopia. To that end, they are building lodging around the country in beautiful locations and will partner with an experienced lodging management company to operate the four properties they have in various stages of development.
Pop Culture: Conspiracy theorists believe that J.R.R. Tolkien based Lord of the Rings on Ethiopia! WAS MIDDLE EARTH ETHIOPIA?? There is a book, The Real Middle Earth by Michael Muhling and numerous blogs written about the various similarities:
Gorgora at Lake Tana Gorgoroth
Roha (early Lalibela) Rohan
Simien Mountains Simarillion
Bahir Dar Barad-dur
Places I can’t wait to visit on my next trip: South Omo Valley, Danakil (where Lucy was discovered), Axum.
There is much to do and see in Ethiopia! Tourism is not as developed as in East Africa although the less developed aspect of tourism is a big draw to some travelers who like to experience cultures and places before being overrun by tourists.
Jane and I loved Ethiopia and recommend adding the destination as a unique and exciting experience. We have chosen to work with Jacaranda Tours for their passion and expertise in navigating the country with new vehicles, knowledgeable, fun guides, great organizational skills and attention to detail.
(kiki paris)Tags: Bale National Park, Ethiopia, LOTR