Experience Ethiopia- the cradle of mankind
Africa’s second most populous country, Ethiopia is a land of immense beauty and great historical significance. Popularly described as the ‘cradle of mankind’, Ethiopia has a history going back as far as 3000 B.C., and some of the oldest evidence of Homo sapiens can be found here.
One of the few African countries that was never colonised, Ethiopia was able to launch a successful military resistance to European powers during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the 19th century, making it the only African country to ever defeat a European colonial power. Added to this, the people of Ethiopia have adhered to largely the same sets of values, customs and traditions dating back over 3000 years, and have occupied more or less the same geographical space. Ethiopia is the only African civilisation with its own chronological and calendar system, and its own alphabet. Ethiopia also holds a significant position in contemporary Africa geo-politically, it being a founding member of the United Nations and the African Union. The headquarters of the African Union is located in Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital.\n\nDue to its rich recorded history and wondrous geographical features, Ethiopia boasts the largest number of UNESCO world heritage sites to be found in any African country: Lalibela, Harar, Gondar, Axum, the Simien Mountains, Lower Omo, Tiya Stones, Lower Awash and Konso. Add to this the warm and vibrant people that inhabit this fascinating country, and it’s easy to see why Ethiopia is a top destination for discerning travellers.
People and Culture
The people of Ethiopia are known for their charm and hospitality. They are often seen adorned in colourful, dramatic fashion, with an abundance of beadwork and body art, particularly among country folk. Ethiopians love to celebrate, and several festivals throughout the year – including the Meskel, Timket, Genna, Bull Jumping and Donga – provide ample opportunity, with the locals throwing themselves into the festivities with vigour.\n\nThere are several ethnic groups and languages in Ethiopia, with diverse customs – the hardy, resilient farmers of the Tigray region; proud and independent Amhara people who make their home in the Simiens; the tall, striking Arsi Oromo people; the nomadic Afar people with their vast herds of livestock; the Sidama, known for their distinct beehive-shaped houses. Majority of Ethiopians are Christians, but Muslims make up a significant percentage of the population. The official language in Ethiopia is Amharic, with about 90 other languages in existence. However, English and Arabic are also widely spoken.
Major Cities and Towns
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and the nation’s largest city, is a fascinating place to explore, with its beautiful architecture, splendid year-round weather and ‘donkey trains’ on its wide, tree-lined boulevards. A cosmopolitan city, Addis Ababa is also a place of contrasts. Skyscrapers, elegant villas, theatres and high-end hotels combine with traditional homes and outdoor markets, all flavoured with vibrant people, the smell of spicy cooking and incense to form a distinct, unforgettable atmosphere. The famous Merkarto market is a favourite stop for affordable locally made handicrafts and souvenirs.
Gondar was once the capital city of Ethiopia, and was home to many emperors, kings and warlords. The 17th century palace of Emperor Fasilidas is one of many fascinating historical buildings in Gondar. This charming ancient town retains a sense of history, with relics such as the ruins of the palace and abbey of the 18th century Empress Mentewab and the church of Debre Birhan Selassie.
The Amhara Region’s capital, Bahir Dar is a top tourist destination in Ethiopia, perhaps owing to its close proximity to Lake Tana and Blue Nile River. Bahir Dar is an important town in relation to commerce and the nation’s economy, with a large number of modern shops, hotels and businesses, and vibrant roadside crafts markets.
Best Time to Visit
Year-round sunshine and a pleasant climate mean that Ethiopia can be visited any time of year. The climate is largely temperate due to the country’s high altitude. However, to observe or participate in certain festivals one would need to visit at specific times in the year.
Getting to Ethiopia
Ethiopia requires travel visas for all visitors except nationals of Kenya and Djibouti. Nationals of 33 countries, including the USA, the UK, Norway, South Africa, Brazil, Canada, Sweden, Thailand and Japan are allowed to acquire tourist visas on arrival. Entry points by air include Bole International Airport, Addis Ababa, with international airports also at Dire Dawa, Mekele and Bahir Dar. Entry by rail is possible from Dewele on the Djibouti border. There are daily flights from Lagos to Addis and from many other African cities.
Places to Stay
A wide range of accommodation choices are available in Ethiopia, from luxury hotels to mid-range bed and breakfasts and guesthouses, to budget hotels. Popular choices in each category include the Sheraton Addis, Radisson Blu in Addis Ababa and Jupiter International Hotel in Bole, for top-end accommodation. For mid-range lodgings, Goha hotel in Gondar, Ag Palace Hotel in Addis Ababa and Faro Boutique Hotel in Addis Ababa are suitable choices. Budget travellers might want to try Africa Hotel in Aksum, Asheton Hotel in Lalibela or Lodge du Chateau in Gondar, or one of the numerous hotels in the Piazza area of Addis Ababa.
Places to Visit
Lalibela, with its air of mystery, has been described by early visitors as ‘New Jerusalem’, ‘New Golgotha’, and a ‘Christian citadel in the mountains of wondrous Ethiopia’. The eleven rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are a must-see for visitors, and are true ancient world wonders. Most notable among these churches are the beloved Bet Maryam (The House of Mary), adorned with rich decorations and figurative paintings, and where King Lalibela was said to have worshipped every day; the Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Redeemer of the World), reminiscent of the architecture of ancient Greek temples; and Bet Emanuel (The House of Emanuel), considered by many art historians to be the most remarkable church in Lalibela.
Omo National Park
Omo National Park is one of the richest in East and Central Africa; yet it is probably the least visited due to its difficult-to-reach location and inadequate transport services. However, Omo National Park is worth a visit, tedious as this endeavour might be. The park, an expansive wilderness area, offers an incredibly wide variety of wildlife – herds of buffalo and elephants, giraffes, cheetahs and lions, Anubis baboons and colobus monkeys.
Lake Shalla is the deepest Rift Valley lake in Ethiopia, with a depth of 260 metres. Exceptionally stunning and still largely unspoiled by human interference, Lake Shalla is a beauty to behold. Surrounding the lake are several hot springs, believed to cure an assortment of illnesses, that bubble up to the surface and run into the lake. The water is safe for swimming and the aquatic population low, possibly due to the lake’s extremely high salt concentration. Lake Shalla and its surrounding area is ideal for bird watchers, offering an array of bird life including bright yellow masked weavers, Abyssinian rollers, African fish eagles, flamingos and pelicans. Mammals such as warthogs, golden jackals, Grant’s gazelles and oribi can also be spotted around the lake.
The National Museum and the Ethnological Museum
The National Museum is home to an extensive and valuable collection of historical artefacts, ancient coins and paintings. There are also ancient models of traditional ceremonial apparel and accessories which have been kept in impeccable condition. The Ethnological Museum presents a fascinating study of Ethiopian arts, crafts and culture representing the various ethnic groups and traditions of Ethiopia. In the art section of the museum, classical Ethiopian religious art and artefacts, as well as more recent works of art, can be found.
The Blue Nile Falls
The dramatic and beautiful Blue Nile Waterfalls, popularly known as ‘Smoke of Fire’ among locals, is 400 metres wide when in flood and drops to an astounding 45 metres. Prepare to get wet if you choose to visit the falls – a perpetual spray of water, brought about by the falls, is capable of soaking onlookers as far as one kilometre away. The mist from the waterfall produces rainbows, to the delight of viewers. The surrounding area of the falls is home to many species of monkeys and multicoloured birds.
Bale Mountains National Park
The Bale Mountains National Park offers a range of sights and activities to partake of. In the Gaysay area, you can spot mountain nyala in large numbers, as well as the grey duiker, warthogs and bushbuck. The Sanetti Plateau offers some of the most stunning mountain scenery in Africa. You can also visit Tullu Deemtu, which is the second highest mountain in Ethiopia. From its summit, you can enjoy a wide sweeping view.
Things to Do
If you are eager to experience history, not just African but of mankind in general, there aren’t too many other places that have as much to offer as Ethiopia. With its recorded history going back as far as the old testament of the Bible, and with some of the oldest evidence of human existence having originated from Ethiopia, it’s no wonder this country is called the ‘cradle of civilisation’. Much of this history has been well-preserved, some of the most popular historic sites including Lalibela, with the ancient rock-hewn churches, each one architecturally distinct and believed to have been built by King Lalibela in the late 12th or early 13th century; Axum, which is believed to have once been home to the Queen of Sheba and one of the sites of the Ark of Covenant; Gondar, with its great castles that date back to the 17th century.
Experience Ethiopian Cuisine
The popular Ethiopian staple, injera, is served with most local meals. Injera is a large, thin, soft crepe made from teff, sorghum or barley. The slightly sour-tasting injera is always combined with a wot (stew), which can be made out of different kinds of meats, or vegetarian-style. Coffee is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, and since some of the best coffee in the world is grown and brewed here, coffee lovers will find themselves at home. You might be given the honour of attending a local Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which is elaborate and significant in Ethiopian culture. Keep in mind that it is considered rude to consume less than three cups of coffee at such ceremonies; the third cup is believed to bestow a blessing.
White Water Rafting
The Omo River, 350 kilometres long and meandering over and through steep, remote valleys, presents the perfect location for white water rafting. The best time of year for white water rafting on the Omo River is September to October, right after the June to September rains. With heart stopping rapids, numerous waterfalls and side creeks, white water rafting on the Omo River is a thrilling experience for the die-hard adventure seeker.
Mountain Climbing and Trekking
The Ethiopian highlands, with vast mountains, a pleasant climate, sweeping views and hospitable inhabitants, offer an unequalled mountain climbing experience. The highlands invite you to leave the noise and bustle of urban spaces behind and commune with nature. You can also go trekking in the Bale Mountains and Simien Mountains national parks, where you might be lucky enough to catch a rare glimpse of the red fox. Either way, the experience of trekking at above 4000 metres, along with the astounding vistas and sights that will greet your eyes, will make your trek or climb well worth the effort.
Ethiopia is home to one of the most remarkable and extensive cave systems in the world, the Sof Omar Caves. This 16 kilometre cave system is a wonder of nature, with pillars of stone going up as high as 20 metres. You can explore the caves on foot and without special equipment, though maps and lighting are required.
Fishing, Bird and Wildlife Watching
With rivers and lakes bursting with abundant aquatic life, Ethiopia is ideal for fishing. There are over 200 species of freshwater fish in Ethiopia’s waters, including tiger fish, brown and rainbow trout and immense catfish. Ethiopia’s Rift Valley Lakes also provide the perfect environment for supporting a variety of bird species, with a recorded 857 species, 16 of which are endemic. A boat trip on Lake Chamo, in Arba Minch, is possibly one of the best nature experiences to be had in Ethiopia. On the lake, you can watch hippos, crocodiles and pelicans in their natural, unspoiled habitat, before going on to visit several natural springs in the area. From Arba Minch, you can choose to visit the Omo Valley, where you can experience the lives and cultures of local tribes.
Experience Ethiopia’s Festivals
Enkutatash (New Year’s) Festival falls on September 11, according to the Ethiopian calendar. This day also doubles as the Feast of Saint John the Baptist. Following ancient tradition, the people light fires outside their homes and go about with flaming torches, symbolising the end of the old year and the start of the new. Genna (Ethiopian Christmas) falls on January 7, starting with a solemn Christmas Eve church service that lasts throughout the night. Timket (Feast of Epiphany), the greatest festival of the year, and starting from January 19, is a three-day festival with dramatic and vibrant processions, and feasting and exchanging of gifts. The best places from which to observe the feast are Addis Ababa, Lalibela and Gondar. Other festivals in Ethiopia include the Meskel (Finding of the True Cross), Negash, Idd-Ul-Fitr and Idd-Ul-Adha.