Essential Africa: Ethiopia


Few countries in Africa are as rewarding to travel in as Ethiopia. Spread across its lavish landscapes, which range from fog-shrouded 4000m peaks to baking depressions well below sea level, is a long list of enthralling attractions, both natural and man-made. Philip Briggs, author of Bradt’s Ethiopia guidebook, is here to help you plan your first trip.


Bet Giyorgis, one of Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches

Were an award to be given to the world’s most widely misunderstood country, Ethiopia, one suspects, would sweep away all comers. Synonymous in popular parlance with drought and famine, Ethiopia in fact ranks among the most fertile of African countries, dominated by a vast, well-watered highland plateau that covers an area greater than the British Isles and sustains a population of almost 70 million.

Ethiopia is profoundly underrated as a travel destination. True, in terms of conventional wildlife safaris, it falters by comparison to the likes of, say, Tanzania or Kenya. But it is easily the most historically-rich country in sub-Saharan Africa. Besides its incredible hominid fossil legacy, Ethiopia is studded with thousands of ruins and relicts dating from mediaeval times back to the era of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Culturally, it presents a unique fusion of African and Judaic influences, of the Biblical, the mediaeval and the modern, to create what Dervla Murphy has referred to as the “Orlando-like illusion of travelling through different centuries”.

Cultural and historical sites dominate, but Ethiopia offers many unique wildlife-viewing opportunities too. Large mammals such as the magnificent gelada monkey, walia ibex and Ethiopian wolf occur nowhere else in the world, and a tally of 50 endemic or near-endemic avian species make it a true birdwatchers’ paradise. Then there is the magnificent highland scenery, a vista of grassy meadows, lush forests, sparkling lakes and towering rock amphitheatres that recalls the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg on steroids. And, though seldom visited by tourists, the deserts of legend are there too: most alluringly the thinly populated volcanic badlands that stretch from the eastern base of the highlands through the searing plains of Afar to the remote Somali border.

If any one national trait can be attributed to Ethiopia, it is the fiery independence of spirit that made it the only state to emerge uncolonised from the Victorian ‘Scramble for Africa’. Fittingly, then, this is a country best suited to travellers who share the rough ’n’ ready spirit of its inhabitants. Tourist facilities, though plentiful, tend to be somewhat rudimentary, but if that doesn’t phase you, Ethiopia makes for a highly affordable and refreshingly unpackaged destination, one whose profound sense of otherness imbues every hour of every day with an aura of adventure and discovery.

Rock-hewn churches of Tigrai
More than 100 active churches are hand-carved into the sandstone cliffs and valleys of Tigrai, yet many remained unknown to outsiders until the 1960s, and still go weeks, even months, without seeing a foreign face. With limited time, the Teka Tesfai cluster, which includes the cliff church of Adi Kasho Medhane Alem, forms an easy diversion from the main road. But those with sufficient time, interest and stamina could dedicate a month to exploring these remarkable mediaeval shrines, described by the British academic Ivy Pearce as “the greatest of the historical-cultural heritages of the Ethiopian people”.

Named after its nomadic camel-herding Afar inhabitants, Ethiopia’s arid and tectonically volatile northeast dips to a frazzled nadir of 116 metres below sea level in the Danakil Depression, officially the hottest place on earth. Highlights include the malodorous multi-hued, sulphur-caked springs around Dallol, and the volcanic Erta Ale, which has erupted continuously since 1967. The life-sustaining Awash River gives its name to a national park inhabited by Beisa oryx, hamadrayas baboons, lesser kudu and various dry-country birds. The hominid fossil record here, potentially the oldest in Africa, dates back almost 6 million years.

Founded circa 1520, this legendary walled city, the spiritual heart of Islamic Ethiopia, was the country’s most important trade hub in the 19th century, when the explorer Richard Burton and French poet Rimbaud visited. Despite its devout pedigree, Harar has a rather hedonistic feel today – the compulsive chewing of narcotic khat leaves seems to dominate every aspect of public life, and the bars are unexpectedly lively and plentiful. There’s plenty to engage history buffs, too, but touristic pride of place goes to the famously demented ‘hyena men’ of Harar, who lure wild hyenas to a feeding place on the city outskirts every night.

Bale Mountains National Park
The centrepiece of this pedestrian-friendly park is the 4000m-high Sanetti Plateau, the world’s largest expanse of Afro-montane heath. Traversed by Africa’s highest all-weather road, this undulating landscape of pastel heath and otherworldly giant lobelias is also the last stronghold of the Ethiopian wolf, a russet canid thought to number less than 500 in the wild. The fragrant hagenia and juniper forests at lower altitudes are the best place to see mountain nyala (also endemic to Ethiopia), and half the bird species endemic to Ethiopia/Eritrea can be seen here with relative ease.

Rift Valley lakes
The string of six major scenic lakes that follows the Rift Valley floor south of Addis Ababa supports a fabulously varied birdlife, ranging from the 100,000 or more flamingos that congregate seasonally in the alkaline shallows of Lake Abiata to the hornbills and parrots that inhabit forest-fringed Lake Awasa, and myriad waterbirds that forage along marshy Lake Ziway. Hippos, crocodiles and monkeys are associated with most of these water bodies, while Lakes Abaya and Chamo form the centrepiece of Nechisar National Park, an important refuge for grazers such as the endemic Swayne’s hartebeest.

Simien Mountains National Park
Ethiopia’s spectacular highland landscapes reach their craggy apex in the Simiens, which rise to one of Africa’s highest peaks, Ras Dashen (4620m). This is prime trekking country, ideally explored over a few days on foot or on donkeyback, though the recent construction of a road and upmarket lodge also make its western fringes accessible to more sedentary or hurried visitors. Gaping montane scenery aside, the park is the last stronghold for the endangered walia ibex and the main population centre of the magnificent golden-maned gelada monkey, while birdwatchers are practically guaranteed close-up views of the awesome lammergeyer (bearded vulture).

Northern historical circuit
The core of most itineraries for first-time visitors to Ethiopia is the quartet of towns that comprise the northern historical circuit. The oldest of these is Aksum, birthplace of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, reputed last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, and site of innumerable obelisks, catacombs, palaces and other structures dating to the peak of the Aksumite Empire (500 BC to 500 AD). Then there’s the small but spiritually infused highland town of Lalibela, where the eponymous king excavated a singularly sublime subterranean complex of rock-hewn churches some 800 years ago. Gonder, founded in the 17th century, is best known for its Portuguese-influenced castles, though these are dwarfed aesthetically by the colourfully painted out-of-town church of Debre Birhan Selassie. Finally, the more modern city of Bahir Dar lies on Lake Tana at the outlet of the Blue Nile, within daytrip distance of the spectacular Blue Nile Falls and more than a dozen historic island monasteries.

Addis Ababa
Founded in the late 19th century, Addis Ababa is Ethiopia at its most modern and cosmopolitan, as epitomised by the relative glitz of Bole Road and the seedier Piazza district. The city forms a good starting point for exploring most aspects of Ethiopia, whether you fancy trawling the national museum and various imperial-era landmarks in search of historical and cultural enlightenment, losing yourself in the maze-like commercial hubbub of the Mercato (reputedly Africa’s largest market), or socialising in its ubiquitous coffee shops and bars whilst absorbing the wondrously discordant home-grown music that emanates from all directions.

South Omo
Some 40 animist tribes inhabit the remote South Omo region, forming a rich cultural mosaic whose components outdo each other when it comes to bizarre customs, disfigurements and adornments: lip plates, intricate body scarification and painting, ritual wife-beating, bull-jumping and stick-fighting, and so on. Weird beyond succinct description or easy assimilation, this staunchly traditionalist corner of Ethiopia, at once shocking and life-affirming, is best approached with featherweight cultural baggage. The shock factor will be diluted if you arrange a charter package based at the region’s solitary mid-range lodge. More rewarding, however, is to cruise through in a 4WD – or, more adventurously, to ride the rough and erratic public transport – and stay at the seriously no-frills guesthouses and campsites that service the larger villages.


First published in Travel Africa edition 46, Spring 2009