Travel Notebook

Exploring Ethiopia

Any time we have the chance to chat with David Sugden (backed by an expert team at Africa House Safaris), we are awed and humbled by his invaluable insights and dedication to the land he loves. This month, we asked David to share his favorite places to visit in Ethiopia. We hope this inspires creative ideas for your clients’ travels to Africa; each and every safari planned by Africa House is distinctive and immersive, unlocking the secrets of this incredibly special region.
Without further ado, we turn to David Sugden of Africa House Safaris and his spotlight on Ethiopia:

Ethiopia with the Experts
Neighbor to Kenya and Tanzania, Ethiopia hosts dreamlike landscapes, is the true home of coffee, and has a truly unique cuisine. The Kingdom of Axum in the north was thriving with trade 400 years before the Romans established London. Highlands with vast valleys and deep canyons are home to the Ethiopian Wolf – a rare and exciting sight – and the uniquely grass-eating Gelada monkeys. Birders add quickly to their life list, with many of the almost 30 endemic species more easily seen in Ethiopia than in the southern neighbor countries. Memories made in Ethiopia are sure to include the witnessing of one of the traditional festivals and dances of the many cultures woven into the country’s cultural heritage, including Oromo, Surmi, Afar, Mursi, Karo and more. Quite simply, Ethiopia should not be overlooked.

Karo tribe, Ethiopia
Karo tribe, among the many tribes that constitute Ethiopia’s cultural heritage

First Things First: Arriving in Addis Ababa
Before embarking on an Ethiopia highlights sightseeing route, plan to stay a couple of nights in Addis Ababa, the sprawling capital city in the highlands that border the Great Rift Valley. This is a wonderful opportunity to immerse oneself in Ethiopian food and culture and rest up from the long flight before further exploration of the country. (Insider tip: If you arrive in Addis on Ethiopian Airlines, they generously provide discounted fares for all of the internal flights to fabulous sites throughout Ethiopia.) During your free time in Addis, visit the National Museum and its fine collection of Ethiopian art and prehistoric fossils, as well as the neo-baroque Holy Trinity Cathedral, burial site of the 20th-century emperor Haile Selassie.

David’s Favorite Places to Visit in Ethiopia
Rested and ready, here’s what not to miss during an Ethiopian stay:

Axum (or Aksum)
This UNESCO World Heritage Site sits at the heart of ancient Ethiopia, with massive ruins from the 1st through 13th centuries AD to explore – royal tombs, castle ruins, monolithic obelisks and more. This small city was once the capital of a large part of the African continent – it’s through Axum that Christianity came to Ethiopia and it served as a trading center with Europe, the Middle East and southern Africa. Visit the St. Mary of Zion Church Complex (home of the closely guarded Ark of the Covenant), the obelisks, the Queen of Sheba’s Bath, King Ezana’s inscription, King Kaleb’s Tomb, the King Bazen Tomb and Queen Sheba’s Palace.

Aksum ruins. Photo credit : Francesco Bandarin for UNESCOMassive ruins of ancient Axum. Photo credit : Francesco Bandarin for UNESCO

Like many of the world’s most fascinating sites, Gonder’s appeal lies in what it stood for centuries ago. Here, amidst tall trees and rolling hills, visitors will find remnants of a royal era. Step inside one of the country’s most beguiling churches, Debre Berhan Selassie, a vision of stunning frescoes, arched doorways and stone walls. From there, move on to the Royal Enclosure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a huge compound that houses several castles and palaces. Be sure to include a visit to the oldest one, Fasiladas’ Palace, with its four domed towers. Favorite Gonder sights also include the Empress Mentewab’s Kuskuam Complex and the peaceful Fasiladas’ Bath.

Fasilada's Palace, Gondor. Photo credit : A. Davey
Fasiladas Palace in the former imperial capital of Gonder. Photo credit : A. Davey

My personal favorite, Lalibela is a stirring collection of 11 medieval monolithic cave churches from the 13th century – and another of Ethiopia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many worshipers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church make the pilgrimage to this blessed place of devotion in a mountainous town in the heart of the country each year – approximately 80,000 to 100,000 annually, in fact. Historians believe the churches were built by King Lalibela, who sought to develop a “New Jerusalem” after Muslim conquests put an end to Christian pilgrimages from the Holy Land. If you’re fortunate enough to visit Lalibela during a religious festival, you will witness the sublime sight of white-robed pilgrims worshiping throughout night vigils.

A monk reading scriptures in Asheten Monastery, Lalibela. Photo credit : Marie Ange Sylvain
A monk reading scriptures in Asheten Monastery, Lalibela. Photo credit : Marie Ange Sylvain

Bahir Dar & Blue Nile Falls

As close as Ethiopia gets to the Riviera, Bahir Dar is all palm trees and shimmering blue waters. In fact, the biggest draw is Lake Tana itself – venture out by boat to visit the monasteries lining its shores and to view the dramatic Blue Nile Falls (keep an eye on the water and the shoreline and you might spot hippos or crocodiles). The thundering falls (biggest in August and September) shoot off a 42-meter-high cliff in a rapturous mist, featuring many a rainbow – locals say the best time to see one is mid-morning. The omnipresent mist from the falls (known locally as Tis-Isat – or Smoke of Fire) makes for lush rain-forest conditions along the gorge, home to more than a few monkeys and brightly colored birdlife.

Blue Nile Falls. Photo Credit: CT Snow
Blue Nile Falls. Photo Credit: CT Snow

Ethiopia for the Adventure Traveler
For the more intrepid traveler, I would suggest the Southern Circuit. A trip in this region would focus on the Omo River, rising in the highlands southwest of Addis Ababa, and heading south for almost 1,000 kilometers to become the sole feeder of Lake Turkana, East Africa’s fourth-largest lake.
Nature lovers will be enamored of Ethiopia’s largest nature sanctuary, the Omo National Park – one of the richest in spectacle and game, yet one of the least-visited areas in east and central Africa. Together with Mago National Park on the east bank of the river, both parks offer incredible spectacles of oryx, giraffe, zebra, hartebeest, gerenuk and gazelle, as well as lion, buffalo and elephant. Both have the merit of being far from the beaten track and virtually unexplored.

Dassanesh tribe, Omo Valley, Ethiopia
Dassanesh tribe, Omo Valley

Along this southern stretch of the Omo, indigenous people such as the Bume and the Karo practice a combination of cattle-keeping and flood-retreat agriculture. The lower Omo is home to a remarkable mix of small, contrasting ethnic groups that also include the Geleb, the Body, the Mursi, the Surma, the Arbore and the Hamer. Lifestyles are as varied as the tribes themselves and are representative of lives of harsh simplicity uncluttered by the pressures of the modern world. The many fascinating tribes find unique ways to express their artistic impulses. Jewelry tends to be simple but striking – colorful necklaces, chunky metal wristlets, shiny nails appended to skirts, multiple earrings and so on. The Mursi and Surma women also progressively split and stretch their lower lips to make room for smaller discs, too. All times of the year are suitable for visits as the roads dry out quickly after the rains.

For more information about visiting Ethiopia, we can put you in touch with David Sugden at Africa House Safaris. Simply email us or give us a call. We thank David for taking the time to share his favorite spots within the country.