Ethiopia is like nowhere else on the planet, a beautiful country blessed with a peerless history, fabulous wildlife and some of Africa’s most soulful peoples.
Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most beautiful countries and its landscapes are epic in both scale and beauty. Here is a place where you can trek more than 3000m above sea level (the Simien and Bale mountains) or visit the lowest place on the African continent, the Danakil Depression. In between, there are lush highlands and stirring deserts, vertiginous canyons and sweeping savannah, vast lakes and high plateaus. If you look hard enough, you’ll also find landmarks of great significance, from the source of the Blue Nile to, again, the mesmerisingly desolate Danakil Depression, peppered with an astonishing 25% of Africa’s active volcanoes.
Peoples with Proud Traditions
When it comes to human cultures, Ethiopia has an embarrassment of riches. There are the Surmi, Afar, Mursi, Karo, Hamer, Nuer and Anuak, whose ancient customs and traditions have remained almost entirely intact. Venturing into these communities and staying among them is akin to receiving a privileged initiation into a forgotten world. A highlight of any trip here is witnessing one of the many festivals that are an integral part of the traditional culture, from age-old ceremonies marking rites of passage to Christian celebrations of singular passion, the impact upon those who witness such events can provide travel memories to last a lifetime.
Ethiopia, the only African country to have escaped European colonialism, has retained much of its cultural identity and its story is one of Africa’s most fascinating. It all begins with Lucy, one of our most celebrated ancient ancestors, moves effortlessly into the realm of ancient Aksum with its oblelisks and echoes of the Queen of Sheba, and then takes on power and passion as Christianity, with mysterious echoes of Ancient Israel, takes centre stage. And unlike so many other places in Africa, the ancients here left behind some extraordinary monuments to faith and power which serve as focal points for so many wonderful journeys.
Lalibela is history and mystery frozen in stone, its soul alive with the rites and awe of Christianity at its most ancient and unbending. No matter what you’ve heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen of its breathtaking rock-hewn churches, nothing can prepare you for the reality of seeing it for yourself. It’s not only a World Heritage site, but truly a world wonder. Spending a night vigil here during one of the big religious festivals, when white-robed pilgrims in their hundreds crowd the courtyards of the churches, is to witness Christianity in its most raw and powerful form.
Simien Mountains National Park
No matter how you look at it, the Unesco World Heritage-listed Simien Mountains National Park is one of Africa’s most beautiful ranges. This massive plateau, riven with gullies and pinnacles, offers tough but immensely rewarding trekking along the ridge that falls sheer to the plains far below. It’s not just the scenery (and altitude) that will leave you speechless, but also the excitement of sitting among a group of gelada monkeys, or watching magnificent walia ibex joust on rock ledges. Whether you come for a stroll or a two-week trek, the Simiens make a great companion to the Historical Circuit’s monument viewing.
World Heritage listed Harar is a place apart. With its 368 alleyways squeezed into just 1 sq km, it’s more reminiscent of Fez in Morocco than any other city in the Horn. Its countless mosques and shrines, animated markets, crumbling walls and charming people will make you feel as if you’ve floated right out of the 21st century. It’s the east’s most memorable sight and shouldn’t be missed. As if that wasn’t enough, there are many chances to get up close and personal with wild hyenas. It’s a rare traveller who doesn’t enjoy it here.
It’s not what Gonder is, but what Gonder was that’s so enthralling. The city lies in a bowl of hills where tall trees shelter tin-roofed stone houses, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood and painted in the pomp of royalty. It’s often called the ‘Camelot of Africa’, a description that does the royal city a disservice: Camelot is legend, whereas Gonder is reality.
Other Places Of Interest
Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray
The landscapes of northern Tigray seem to spring from some hard-bitten African fairy tale. The luminous light bathes scattered sharp peaks that rise into the sky out of a sandy, rolling semi-desert. The stratified plateaus, particularly between Dugem and Megab in the Gheralta region, lead to inevitable comparisons with the USA’s desert southwest.
The 120-odd churches are as intriguing as the landscape is beautiful. Very different from the more famous monolithic (carved out of the ground and only left attached to the earth at the base) churches of Lalibela, the Tigrayan churches are carved from cliff faces, built into pre-existing caves, or constructed high atop some improbable perch getting to some of them may not be for the faint-hearted, but getting there is almost always half the fun. And beyond a few famous churches, you’ll likely get to explore on your own, even in the high season.
Bale Mountains National Park
The Bale Mountains National Park is known for its wildlife more than any other park in Ethiopia, but it’s a very beautiful place, too. Approaching from Dodola, ridges to the east are punctuated with fortress-like escarpments, standing out from the gentler, rounded rock pinnacles to the north, and great wildlife watching begins as soon as the road cuts through the Gaysay Grassland in the valley between them, which is home to Ethiopia’s densest concentration of large mammals.
Up in the hills are deep gorges, alpine lakes, rushing streams, several waterfalls, lava flows and views that go on almost forever. It would probably be as popular as the Simien Mountains if it wasn’t located in such a remote corner of the country. For hikers, nature lovers, birders and wildlife watchers, the Bale Mountains National Park is a must.
Bubbling volcanoes light up the night sky, sulphurous mounds of yellow contort into otherworldly shapes, and mirages of camels cross lakes of salt. Lying 100m and more below sea level, the Danakil Depression is about the hottest and most inhospitable place on Earth. In fact it’s so surreal that it doesn’t feel like part of Earth at all. If you want genuine, raw adventure, few corners of the globe can match this overwhelming wilderness. But come prepared because with temperatures frequently saying hello to 50Â°C and appalling â€˜road, visiting this region is more an expedition than a tour.