Largely ignored by tourists, Ethiopia has some of Africa's most dramatic scenery and a wealth of fascinating cultural sights that reveal the mysteries of ancient civilisations
Ethiopia’s magical obelisks and ancient monasteries have brought travellers to this part of Africa for centuries, yet this feels like an unexplored destination. The country is still associated in many people’s minds with famine and civil unrest, when the world forgot about the treasures of Gondar and Lalibela, and the richness of Axum, the centre of the Axumite civilisation, which existed 1,000 years before Christ. Now, it is ripe for exploration, and budding explorers and hikers alike will find much to fascinate them.
Like most travellers to Ethiopia, we landed in Addis Ababa, starting point for any tour of the country. The world’s third highest capital is a bustling, dusty city of five million people. It boasts the Mercato, the largest open-air market in Africa, and Kidist Selassie (Holy Trinity Cathedral), which is the final resting place of the late Emperor Haile Selassie. The national museum is one of the best in Africa, with exhibits that include the remains of “Lucy” – a 3½-million-year-old hominid – as well as artefacts from the Axumite and Gondarine periods.
The historical route
From Addis Ababa, we headed to Bahir Dar to set sail across the lovely blue waters of Lake Tana and see its mystical monasteries dating back to the late 16th century. The waters are traversed by papyrus reed boats, called tankwas, which differ little from those depicted on the tombs of the pharaohs. We were lucky enough to spot hippos and white pelicans as we sailed majestically past 20 monasteries, surviving remnants of an old, contemplative tradition. Because of their isolation, they were used to store art treasures and religious relics from all parts of the country. Willing helpers helped me negotiate the rocky road to the 13th-century Monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret, with beautiful painted maqdas and a collection of crosses and crowns.
I needed more nimble-footed helpers when we climbed to the thundering Tis Issat Falls, on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile. Luckily, many were on hand, accompanied by their sturdy sticks and followed by amused, wide-eyed children, who asked for nothing more than a smile or a Biro.
In Lalibela, we visited one of the world’s most fascinating historical sites – the rock-hewn churches believed to have been built by King Lalibela in the late 12th or early 13th century. In these remarkable monolithic structures, we walked though dark, cavernous tunnels, holding candles to help us find the way. The sunlight flooded in through the small arched windows of a hidden church, illuminating colourful wall paintings telling stories from the Bible. A priest appeared, dressed in sumptuous robes and holding aloft a silver cross.
Next stop on the historical circuit is Gondar, known as Ethiopia’s Camelot because of its fairytale castles. Here, in the church of Debre Zeit, hundreds of wide-eyed angels observed us shuffling on the cobbles on our bare feet. Gondar is also home to King Fasiladas’s palace. In January, when Timkat, Ethiopia's most widely celebrated festival, marks the baptism of Christ, this is considered the best place to be, as crowds gather to jump into the waters of King Fasiladas's baths.
Our final stop was Axum, home to three magnificent monolithic stelae, carved from single pieces of granite. The Church of St Mary of Zion is here, and, reputedly, the mystical Ark of the Covenant. En route, we visited the archaeological remains of the Queen of Sheba’s Palace. Indiana Jones was probably hiding there, too.
We were in Ethiopia just weeks before the rain, and the bright sunlight highlighted the country‘s spectacular views, including the vast Rift Valley and the Simien Mountains National Park, a World Heritage Site that contains some of the most dramatic scenery in Africa, with many peaks over 4,000 metres. Endemic mammals and birds, and a variety of contrasting habitats, added a fascinating natural dimension to our historical tour.
These days, Ethiopia is one of very few countries in Africa that are relatively safe to explore. Sadly, much of the continent is out of bounds to tourists, but despite an image tainted by famine and war, Ethiopia is conflict-free and has a low crime rate. The people we met on our tour were friendly and welcoming: one family invited us into their home – a tukel – where we shared the local speciality, inerja (large pancake-style bread, which is served with spices), and probably the best coffee I’ve ever tasted
Useful to know
Ethiopia boasts ‘13 months of sunshine’ - the Julian calendar it uses creates an extra month. Food and drinks are inexpensive; the local bars and cafes offer reasonable fare and are safe and welcoming. Worth trying is the delicious honey beer.
The shops and markets are a paradise for bargain-hunters and it was impossible for me to leave without two pieces of exquisite silver jewellery, a couple of hand-crafted rugs and at least a dozen pictures of those wide-eyed angels.
Country information is available from Ethiopian Airlines (www.ethiopianairlines.com) or from the Embassy website (www.ethioembassy.org.uk).
Where to stay
Although hotels across Ethiopia are comfortable, they often lack the sophistication modern travellers expect. However, the Kuriftu Resort and Spa on Lake Tana and its sister resort in Debre Zeit (50kms south of Addis Ababa) look set to start a new trend. They are beautifully designed resorts with accommodation in grass-topped bungalows. The owners plan to build eight other similar five-star resorts along the historical route.
Although travel between the sites is possible by road, the easiest way to make this trip is by internal Ethiopian Airlines flights, which go to Gondar, Axum, Lalibela and Bahar Dar as well as other Ethiopian destinations.
Car hire is available but not recommended. A number of companies, including Adonay Ethiopia Travel (www.adonaytour.com), offer drivers and knowledgeable guides.