Ethiopia: a secret treasure
By Nina Karnikowski
Ethiopia should be crawling with tourists. The home of coffee, the Queen of Sheba and the oldest known ancestor on the planet, Ethiopia is the only African nation to have escaped European colonialism, meaning it offers travellers a richness of culture that is unlike anywhere else on the continent. Yet for now Ethiopia remains a well-kept secret, which means you’ll feel as though you have the country to yourself as you explore. From meeting the remote tribes of the Omo Valley in the south and dancing the night away in Ethiopian jazz clubs in Addis Ababa, to exploring the 900-year-old rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and hiking alongside gelada baboons and Ethiopian wolves in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia is a country that will surprise and delight at every turn.
ADDIS TO OMO
Your Ethiopian adventure will begin in the buzzing capital of Addis Ababa. If you’ve never listened to Ethiopian jazz before, do yourself a favour and check out Mulatu Astatke and Samuel Yirga, then make sure you time your Addis jaunt for a Saturday night. You can watch the city’s best jazz musicians perform live at dozens of jazz clubs, including Mama’s Kitchen, African Jazz Village and Fendika, then try some of Ethiopia’s most tasty cuisine at Yod Abyssinia, which hosts nightly traditional music and dance shows.
For daytime adventures, visit the National Museum to meet 3.2 million-year-old Lucy, one of the oldest fossilized hominids on the planet, then head into the hills surrounding the city where you’ll find the erstwhile palace of Emperor Menelik II, the founder of Addis Ababa. To refuel, grab a fortifying coffee at Tomoca, which many agree has been serving the best coffee in the country since 1953.
A one-hour flight will have you leaping back in time, as you travel south to meet the decorated tribes of the Omo Valley. Meet the Hamar tribe with their coming-of-age bull jumping ceremonies, the Mursi people who wear clay plates in their lower lips as symbols of fertility, the Karo tribe with their intricate body painting and more. Peruse handicraft markets selling masks, tribal jewellery and pottery and explore grass hut villages, in one of the last places on earth where you can witness humanity at its most raw and untouched.
CITY OF ANGELS
Legend has it that King Lalibela, emperor of Ethiopia during the late 12th and early 13th centuries, had angels help build his 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches in one night. Seeing these astonishing places of worship, which King Lalibela constructed with the aim of creating a “new Jerusalem”, for the first time will have you wondering whether celestial intervention did indeed play a part. Carved directly into the rock, the still-functioning churches are filled with magnificent murals, and brought to life with the chanting of white-robed priests and pilgrims. Officially Christian since 330AD, Ethiopia claims to be the oldest Christian country in the world, and Lalibela is the place to experience Orthodox Christianity at its most raw and powerful. Particularly if you time your visit with Ethiopian Christmas on January 7, when over 200,000 pilgrims pour into town to participate in all-night ceremonies that will transport you to another time, another place.
Created 70 million years ago by volcanic activity and shaped by the Ice Age into psychedelic peaks and spires, the Simien Mountains are completely otherworldly. But it’s not just the scenery that makes this UNESCO-listed national park so unique. The Simiens are also home to three endemic species found nowhere else on the planet. Spend a few days hiking these mountains, along paths lined with Abyssinian rose and thyme, and you’ll likely spot the endangered walia ibex, the Ethiopian wolf, or the gelada (also known as bleeding-heart) baboon. It’s not uncommon to find yourself standing amongst groups of over 100 of these ground-dwelling, grass-eating primates, wandering less than a metre away as they busily groom, feed and mate.
GONDAR AND LAKE TANA
Home to six UNESCO-listed fairytale castles and a royal compound dating back to the 17th century, Gondar was Ethiopia’s ancient capital. Each emperor who reigned here had to build their own castle, partly as a legacy, but also to confuse aggressors who wouldn’t know which was occupied when they came to attack. You’ll notice that each castle has its own specific architectural style, depending on where that emperor had travelled to, from Portugal, to India and beyond.
Less than a three-hour drive away you’ll find Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake and one of the most tranquil places in the country. Head out on a morning boat trip to discover islands dotting the 73km long lake, many of which have churches and monasteries hidden on them. The lake is also home to hippos, crocs and pelicans, which you’ll likely be able to spot from your boat.
And for an Ethiopian grand finale, there really is no better place than the Blue Nile Falls, part of the source of the Nile River. Standing at the base of this waterfall, feeling the intense power of nature, will be the perfect way to farewell this extraordinary, wild country.