The most beguiling safari destination in Africa

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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 people. It has all the essential elements that call travellers back time after time – wildlife you don’t find elsewhere, epic landscapes of rare beauty, an endlessly fascinating historical tale that provides depth and context to any journey. But there is something else at large in Ethiopia: a spiritual dimension that infuses every aspect of travel and brings ancient stories and landscapes to life in a way that you will not encounter anywhere else on the continent. 

With over fifty years of creating personalised itineraries across Africa, the team at Origins Safaris understands the intoxicating combination of wildlife, cultural heritage, adventure and exploration. Here, MD Steve Turner explains why he thinks Ethiopia is perhaps the most intriguing of all safari destinations.

All pictures copyright Steve Turner / Origins Safaris

Endemic species
The Ethiopian Highlands were the last region of Africa to emerge from the Ice Age. The sheer breathtaking beauty of this country’s scenery, carved by those glaciers, overwhelms your senses and embeds itself in your mind’s eye. Every journey is a visual feast, but also a discovery of endemic and endangered animal species, such as the Ethiopian wolf, Walia ibex (pictured above), Gelada monkey and mountain nyala, along with 20-plus endemic bird species.

Trekking the beautiful Bale Mountains
The Bale Mountains National Park is known for its wildlife more than any park in Ethiopia. Located in the south-east, 400km from Addis Ababa, the park protects over 2200 sq km of pristine plains, woodlands and bush land; a landscape formed by volcanic fires and shaped by glacial ice. Due to the wet and overall mild climate, with a great variation in altitude, the Bale Mountains is an extraordinary habitat. Featuring grasslands, woodlands, afro-alpine meadows, the Erica moorlands and Herrena forest, it is home to great welts of Juniper tree, wildflower and St Johns’ wort. The Sanetti Plateau is a vast area of lichen-covered rock, of streams and lakes, an expanse periodically punctuated by Giant lobelia.

The park is home to a multitude of unique flora and fauna species, harbouring twenty animals endemic to Ethiopia, of which five mammals are found here. Those of paramount importance include the Bale monkey, Mountain nyala, giant mole rat and the Ethiopian wolf (pictured above). The Sanetti Plateau and the Web Valley is home to about half of the world’s population of Ethiopian wolves (between 400-450). This beautiful creature is the rarest canid on the planet and Africa’s most endangered carnivore. Other species of mammal include Menelik’s bushbuck, spotted hyena, African wild dog, exceptionally shy lions and the rare black leopard – all in extremely low numbers.

Overall, there is a high incident of rodent species, several of which are key members of the food chain – accounting for the presence of the Ethiopian wolf and the area’s large numbers of raptors. Indeed, bird-wise the area is extremely rich, with over 280 species thus far identified.

The most dramatic scenery in Africa – the Simien Mountains
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Simien National Park offers the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in Africa. This enormous plateau has great volcanic plugs, formed 40 million years ago and eroded through the ages into spectacular cliffs, peaks and flat topped mountains (“the chess pieces of the Gods”, as Homer, the Greek poet, describes them), towering over precipitous gorges, rivers, valleys and plains stretching all the way to Eritrea. At 4620m, Ras Dashen is the highest peak in the country and the fourth highest in Africa.

Trekking along the precipices that drop some 1500m to the plains far below, is not the only thing that will leave you speechless, but also the excitement of seeing a number of endemic species. Due to the isolation of the Simien Mountains and a wide altitude variance, it has created appropriate conditions for the survival of rare and endemic species such as the Ethiopian wolf (also known as the Simien Wolf), Walia ibex and the Gelada monkey (also known as the bleeding heart baboon, pictured above). There are also other mammal species found such as bushbuck, klipspringer, rock hyrax and Grey duiker.

Endemic birds seen here include the Thick-billed raven, Black-headed siskin, White-collared pigeon, Wattled ibis, White-billed starling, Spot-breasted plover, White-backed black tit and the spectacular Lammergeyer, with its 3m wingspan.

Whether you come for a short hike or a two-week trek, the Simien Mountains make a fantastic companion to the historical circuit’s monument-viewing.

Hottest place on Earth
Bubbling volcanoes light up the night sky, sulphurous mounds of yellow contort into otherworldly shapes, and mirages of camels cross lakes of salt. Lying 100-150m below sea level, the Danakil Depression (also known as the Afar Depression or the Afar Triangle, and pictured above) is the hottest, lowest 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 a genuine, raw adventure, few corners of the globe can match this overwhelming wilderness. The region’s energetic geology makes it look like an alien land. There are volcanoes with bubbling lava lakes, multi-coloured hydrothermal fields and great salt pans that dazzle the eyes. This moon-like landscape is harsh, but it has brought us wonders beyond belief.

Erta Ale is an active shield volcano and an impressive natural phenomenon. It is the most active volcano in Ethiopia. Erta Ale is 613m tall, with a lava lake (one of only five in the world) at the summit. It is the longest existing lava lake, present since 1906. Erta Ale, in whose crater lies the world’s only sub-sea level land volcano, has technicoloured landscapes, incredible mineral deposits. Sulphur lakes and bubbling sulphur springs are fascinating sights not to be missed.

Cultural immersions
Nowhere in the world is as well-endowed with traditional and tribal cultures than Ethiopia. Our cultural expeditions take you into this remote region, where you will be immersed in an array of tribal lifestyles. Many are like living museums, where you will enjoy ‘street level culture’ and where it is often hard to draw the line between participant and observer. Join us on the most amazing cultural expedition of your life, where you will see customs, cultures and lifestyles totally unaffected by the Western world. You will feel nothing but sheer privilege at being able to travel amongst them.

The tribes that live in the Omo Valley are among the most fascinating on the continent and around the world. To name a few, there are the Suri (pictured above), Mursi, Kara, Hamar, Nyangatom and Dassenech, all of 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 their traditional culture.

Historical wonders
A journey through Ethiopia’s historic route is a trip back in time. From the reign of King Solomon, Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) was the epicentre of religious mystique and the supposed resting place of the Arc of the Covenant. Rumours and mystery are interwoven with history and heritage. The Knights Templar — the so-called Crusaders – came here in search of the Holy Grail.

Ethiopia has a story all of its own and a magnetic attraction across cultures and boundaries. Visit the amazing rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (pictured above) and Tigrai, where you can see unbelievable monastic wall-paintings and iconic images, as well as witnessing and attending sacred services in the most extraordinary surroundings imaginable.

Visiting Ethiopia
From October 2-28, 2018, Origins Safaris will be positioning Phil Mathews with his EC130 B4 Eurocopter in the Tigrai region of Northern Ethiopia, providing an exclusive opportunity to guests travelling in the region over the optimum season. Our exceptional itinerary highlights the spectacular scenery, endemic wildlife and lesser-known historical sites that remain exclusive to travel by helicopter. These will include not only the historic and picturesque town of Lalibela, the spectacular Tekezze Gorge, the Mountain churches of Tigrai and the inaccessible regions of the Danakil Depression, but also full overnight stops on the top of The Simien and Bale Mountains, and the caldera of Erta Ale Volcano.

For more information, visit http://originsafaris.com/ethiopia/

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