If one more person asks me why Ethiopia with a look of shock and confusion on their faces, I am going to lose it! But I keep my temper in check and once more smile, pull out my phone and start googling images of Lalibela, Gondar and Axum to show and educate them.
I once used to be one of them, but then the opportunity presented itself to me to visit this highly religious landlocked country in the horn of Africa. And the more I read up on this country the more excited I became. Who does not want to visit the land where the fabled (or true) Queen of Sheba came from? I for one am a big sucker if it comes to history, culture and visiting these said places. This is my drug of choice and harms no-one (except my own pocket), but so far it was worth it every single time. Thus I found myself getting off a direct Ethiopian Airlines flight one morning early (according to most sources September, beginning October seems the best time to visit), at Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa. The process goes very fast and I am whisked off to my hotel. I meet and join half my group for a day tour of Addis Ababa. Because we are such like-minded travellers we bond almost immediately, what a plus on what turned out to be one of the most interesting, and I have to add arduous, adventures of my life.
The next morning we are up early to catch our flight to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Axum. We marvel at the tallest stelae (obelisks) ever erected in the ancient world. It is incredible to think the Axumite Empire, peaking during the 3rd to the 6th centuries AD, was once one of the four power houses (together with Persia, China and Rome) of the world and stretched all the way from the Nile River across the Red Sea all the way to Yemen.
But these ancient royal tombstones are not the only thing to gaze upon, there is so much more to explore – the Cathedral of St. Mary (Maryam Tsion) and the supposed Ark of the Covenant which is kept in a sanctified building within the compound (but only two Westerners have ever claimed to have seen it).
Just outside the city one can find the Dongar Palace, also known as the palace of the Queen of Sheba (although archeologists claim this to be unlikely), May Shum, the Queen of Sheba’s Pool and the tombs of King’s Ezana and Basen.
The next day is a full day trip via the Lima Limo Valley from Axum to Debark through the most picturesque mountain passes. It is a rough ride and we are often treated to a typical African massage (gravel roads) as it is fondly called by our tour leader Kailopy, but the views around every corner is rewarding enough. Full of anticipation we are up early the next day, for we are to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Simien Mountains National Park. This park is also home to thousands of Gelada monkeys, the Walia ibex and the very rare Ethiopian wolf.
We catch our breath whilst staring over the most magnificent mountain peaks, reminiscent of our own Drakensberg. And it is no wonder, these are the only two mountain ranges in the world formed in the same unique way millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions, uplifts and erosion.
Then someone calls out and we all look in his direction to see hundreds of Gelada monkeys coming our way. The best is usually just to stand or sit where you are and enjoy the circus. If you are calm, they stay calm and you get treated by them sitting all around you plucking hands full of grass and grazing away. The elder males are handsome with their manes and heart-shaped red chest patches.
Nowhere else in the world can you experience something similar. We just stare in awe and count our blessings. This was one of my best days ever spent outside in Mother Nature. We end the day chatting away and enjoying our Habesha’s (local beers) around a bar-fire in the highest bar in Africa – and then we get to drift off to sleep in one of the quaint rondawels in the highest Lodge in Africa.
Next up on the itinerary is a visit to the Royal Enclosure known as Fasil Ghebbi, a walled castle compound in Gondar, housing about half a dozen 17th century castles. Mind-blowing to think these structures actually exist in Africa! The entrance fee also allows you access to the enchanting Bath of Fasilida’s and a visit to the church of Debre Berhan Selassie, with its much-photographed ceiling with 80 cherubic faces painted on it.
We end the day by sampling locally brewed honey wine whilst being entertained by traditional dancers energetically doing their thing accompanied by the musician/singer on his mesenqo.
The next couple of days just fly by, we lunch on scrumptious tilapia fish next to Lake Tana in the port town of Bahir Dar, and we visit two famous monasteries, by boat, on a peninsula in the southern part of the lake. The Blue Nile Falls or Tis Isat (Water that Smokes) does not disappoint, and after a successful rainy season we are treated by an immense amount of water thundering over the cliff and down the gorge. What a sight to behold. Next we visit a local family compound where we get to make injera (a spongy sourdough crepe-like flatbread) and we sample the local coffee and aniseed-tasting schnapps. After another long day trip, the best (most famous) landmark was left for last.
The famous cluster of medieval rock-hewn churches and chapels of Lalibela, named after the fifth Zagwe Emperor, did not disappoint. The most famous church in this UNESCO World Heritage Site is Bet Giyorgis, the church dedicated to St.George. This monolith church is carved in a symmetrical cruciform tower. It truly is an impressive sight which even makes you put down your camera and simply drink in the scene before you.
Whatever your reason for choosing Ethiopia, you will not be disappointed. This country will make you feel things you haven’t felt in a while. Now repeat after me: ameseghinalehu
What you should know before you go:
• Do your homework before the time and read up extensively, this county is not for everyone, but very rewarding. And do try and join a reputable operator like G-Adventures with years of experience.
• Females need to cover their hair with scarfs before entering any of the holy sites, and men should remove their hats, you will also have to remove your shoes every time. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is highly religious.
• Do not give ANY handouts to anyone begging (as per the tour guides and travel literature), this country is still very poor after the horrible Derg-period as recent as 1974-1991, it will just encourage this behaviour more and more. Parents even keep their kids out of school just to beg.
• The currency used is the Ethiopian Birr and the conversion gives you 2 Birr for 1 Rand. But do get rid of it before coming back home, because you will not be able to exchange it anywhere.
• South Africans do need visas for Ethiopia, it is advisable to apply online before the time for an e-Visa, and it makes it so much easier and faster on that side.
• Ethiopian Airlines offers a couple of direct flights to Addis Ababa daily.
• Make sure you check all health precautions with a travel clinic before leaving.
• A simple dish will cost you about 200 Birr and a delicious local beer starts at around 30 Birr.
• Do negotiate, because they like charging Faranji-rates (for foreigners).