Ethiopia has come a long way in the past few years and, as well as amazing wildlife and unique historic sights, offers a truly different experience for those prepared to seek it out
Mist was rising off the lake like steam from an early morning coffee. In fact a coffee would have been welcome at that point as it was only 5:45 am and our beds had barely lost their warmth. A loud buzzing noise split the chorus of birdsong. “That’s either our transport or a bloody big mozzy” the Australian in our party suggested, with characteristic frankness. Luckily it was the former, and within seconds we were clambering one by one onto a fragile narrow riverboat complete with outboard motor.
Our embarkation point had been at the bottom of the garden of our hotel, the Tana in Bahar Dar (78 Bahar Dar, www.ghionhotel.com.et/tana.htm). We were two days into a 15 day tour of the country and this was our first ‘real’ town outside of the capital. Originally owned by the government, the hotel had recently been bought out and the staff were eager to do their best, even if through Western eyes the actual facilities would have benefitted from a little investment. As we were to learn however, this was Ethiopia not Europe, and you need a sense of patience, if not also of humour, to enjoy the experience of this country fully.
Back on the lake the damp grey blanket hovering over the water was just beginning to give way to the first orange glow of morning. The trip had been billed as a hippo hunt, even if we’d been warned that there was only a 50% chance of seeing the notoriously shy beasts. Our expectations duly managed, we relaxed into the experience. Cameras poised in readiness to capture hippos were soon pressed into action on a stunning sunrise as it rose over the lake, Africa’s third largest.
Before long fishermen emerged from the reeds on slim papyrus boats even more delicate than our own craft, and they in turn attracted flocks of white pelicans in the hope of easy food. Other birdlife rose up into the air and their silhouettes against the fiery sky monetarily took our eyes off the surface of the lake, when suddenly a shout went up: ‘Over there!’ The unmistakable profile of round head with small hairy ears had popped up out of the water about fifty yards distant – a hippo. Soon it was joined by others, a family we guessed, and the air was filled with the furious sound of shutters clicking away.
After an hour on the water we returned for breakfast. We’d got what we’d come for, but much more besides. We’d seen things we hadn’t expected and had an experience that went beyond a mere waterborne safari. As the holiday progressed it turned out that this wasn’t a bad analogy for Ethiopia itself.
A Certain Uniqueness
Brilliant though the wildlife encounter had been it wasn’t representative of what makes Ethiopia different; after all, there’s probably dozens of destinations in Africa offering similar sights. What makes Ethiopia unique is its past and the legacy of history and attitudes to tourism this has left. The only African country not to be colonised (Mussolini’s brief sojourn is regarded as only an occupation), Ethiopia has a proud history stretching back thousands of years as an empire sandwiched between the northern powers of Egypt and Sudan and deepest tribal Africa.
This history has left a number of sights and sites, chronicled in other articles on Simonseeks, often organised into a hectic two week schedule for the tourist. Bahar Dar itself for example also acts as a good base for viewing the Blue Nile Falls at Tis Abay, reached via a steady but not too demanding hour’s trek, as well as further boat trips out to see the monasteries occupying islands in the lake, the most accessible of which is probably the Ura Kidane Mihret on the Zege Penisular.
We had reached Bahar Dar via a brief internal flight on Ethiopian Airways from Addis Ababa and the standard circuit typically involves a combination of further flights and at times arduous bus trips, with uneven roads providing what our local guide dubbed an ‘African massage’. Our trip was organised through Explore (0845 013 1537, www.explore.co.uk), who in turn used a local agent called Green Land Tours (251 11 6299252, www.greenlandethiopia.com). Prices vary between agents but it’s worth remembering that there’s little to choose from at the top of the hotel food chain in Ethiopia, and it can be a case of ‘he who has the best connections gets the best hotels’, especially in the peak periods.
We travelled in early October just after the rainy season when the lake was full and the countryside was green, and from then through to Christmas qualifies is the most popular time to travel. Bear in mind operators may also choose to vary the quality of accommodation over two weeks to even costs out as trips may take in 7 or 8 different hotels, and it is worth checking what is on offer before booking. That said, most will add a caveat that no hotel is guaranteed, something we can confirm through experience and a feature that constitutes part of the ‘Ethiopian Experience’.
The Tana Hotel in Bahar Dar was until recently part of the Ghion chain. It is worth mentioning however that there’s currently a lot of building going on in Bahar Dar and it’s likely that others will be available soon. This seems to reflect a growing optimism in the country after their Millennium three years ago (like many things, the Ethiopian calendar differs from the West), which seems for many to have drawn a line beneath the country’s often troubled recent past.
Tourism is still nascent in Ethiopia, although growing in importance, and tourists are still an object of interest to locals, who are happy to shout out ‘Ferangi’, flash a beaming smile and wave to any passing white face. This is done with a innocence however and is part of what makes Ethiopia different. The country’s past means white faces remain unusual and as such you remain a visitor to their country rather than a representative of a previous colonial master.
This sense of independence is reflected in the food and although it’s possible to eat ‘ferangi food’ in the hotels (often pasta-based, with a typical set menu of three courses costing around 70 birr or just under £3), it’s easy to find places where you can enjoy the local experience in town. This usually consists of a plate of injera, a sort of giant pancake made from the local tef grain, presented either flat or rolled up. The injera is then broken into pieces and used to scoop up a variety of sauces.
Vegetarians are well catered for as the Ethiopian Coptic Church has 140 non-meat eating days a year, which means a regular choice of fasting dishes, such as Shiro and Misr Wat (wat means sauce), made from split peas, beans or lentils. Meat eaters can go for Doro Wat, a dish consisting of a leg of chicken and a boiled egg in hot sauce, or ribs, which come mainly as beef or lamb. In Bahar Dar we ate in the Dib Anbessa (3 Barir Dar, 58 220 14 36), a local restaurant attached to a hotel near to the Summerland and the Ethio-Espaniolito nearby. In both cases expect to pay no more than 50 birr (£2) a head, including a couple of bottles of the fine local Dashen or St. George beers (typically around 10 birr a bottle).
Other local specialities include the various fruit juice bars, where you can top up on your five a days – ask for a mixed, which usually comes with three juices, often avocado, papaya and mango (ask them to use bottled water as appropriate); as well as pastries, another Italian influence.
The secret to Ethiopia is probably to go in with an open mind and take it as it comes. Its distinctly Christian identity marks it out from the Islamic states to the north and its lack of colonial past separates it from deeper Africa to the south. Given a fair wind and no more disasters (whether driven by man or nature) it could be on the verge of a period of rapid change – catch it now while it retains its innocence.