Ethiopia: A Different Kind of Africa

Louise has recently returned from her whistle stop trip to Ethiopia, taking in as many of the intriguing sights as she could on her first visit to this incredible and impressive country.

Ethiopia as a destination has never really crossed my mind so when I was asked if I would like to visit, I thought why not? I purposely didn’t do too much research before going so as not to arrive with any perceived ideas of what I would experience, and I think that because of this, I was completely blown away by this remarkable country.

When you think of eastern Africa, you probably do not immediately think of ancient civilisations, huge rock churches or European style castles. However, it is these attractions which make the country so unique. Ethiopia is also among the top destinations in Africa for bird watching, with such a vast number of native species even the non twitchers will be captivated by the offerings. Ethiopia is the only place where you can find Africa’s last remaining packs of wolves, these unique canines live on the plateaus of the Bale and Simien Mountains and were one of the highlights of my extraordinary trip.

As soon as I landed into Addis Ababa I instantly felt like I was in a different kind of Africa. With many high rise buildings left unfinished, appearing as shells of a promised future, it still seems to be coming to grips with modern city life. Landing in the early morning we were met by the wonderful Dawit and transferred to the Radisson Blu for a quick freshen up and nap in a very comfortable bed.

Our first afternoon was a whirlwind tour of Addis, taking in the impressive Trinity Church, the Ethnographic Museum and the National Museum; a great introduction to Ethiopia’s diversity.

Trinity Church in Addis Ababa Trinity Church in Addis Ababa
The stunning stained glass window of Trinity Church The stunning stained glass window of Trinity Church

The next morning we flew out to Bahir Dar, flying with Ethiopia’s impressive and punctual domestic airlines. Bahir Dar is a quaint town and home to the start of the Blue Nile Falls. Although the power of the waterfall is not as impressive as it once was due to the dam built just above the falls, the hike is picturesque and filled with superb of bird life.

The, slightly menacing, hooded vulture The, slightly menacing, hooded vulture
The Blue Nile Falls The Blue Nile Falls
A glimpse of village life on the hike to the Blue Nile Falls A glimpse of village life on the hike to the Blue Nile Falls

From Bahir Dar we drove the 175km to Gondar, once the capital of Ethiopia during the reign of King Fasilides. The King of Fasilides built the impressive Fasilides Castle, the unique European style, architecture and design a slightly surreal sight when in East Africa. The Fasilides is absolutely worth a visit with the ruins incredible well preserved; I felt as if I was walking through a castle in Portugal or France.

The European style Fasilides Castle The European style Fasilides Castle

Our next stop was the historical Axum. While my trip included a few flights, the astounding sights out of the plane window were the best way to see the vast, rugged beauty of Ethiopia. Flying to Axum, we soared over the breathtaking scenery of the Simien Mountains. The highlight of my time in Axum was being taken around the archaeological sites with professor of archaeology Sam William, who really made the experience come alive with his knowledge and enthusiasm. I’ve never encountered this kind of ancient history before in East Africa and it was truly fascinating to learn about the past civilisations which had its own alphabet and trading channels with India and China.

Beautiful purple Jacaranda trees Beautiful purple Jacaranda trees

One more flight down south to Lalibela, thankfully passing over the Simien Mountains for some more arresting views which I never tired of. Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and a place of pilgrimage and devotion for Ethiopian Christianity. The town is home to and famous for the 11 rock-hewn churches each carved out of a single block of granite. The size and intricate carvings of these churches is remarkable especially when put into the context of being completed over only 22 years. With 11 churches to visit we needed a full two days to explore everything, my personal highlight being the Monetary set on a cliff edge. With lots of small steps and alleys to meander through a bit of agility and stamina is required to explore the churches.

The rock-cut churches of Lalibela, the famous UNESCO site The rock-cut churches of Lalibela, the famous UNESCO site
View over the top of Bet Giorgis, one of the most spectacular of the 11 churches View over the top of Bet Giorgis, one of the most spectacular of the 11 churches

Flying over the rift valley into Bale, we were met on arrival by four Landcrusiers our chariots into the Bale Mountains. Travelling across the bumpy murram roads the landscapes changed dramatically as we gained attitude. On top of the Sanetti Plateau we stopped to look at some soaring endemic birds, the blue-winged goose and the spot-breasted plover, stepping out of the car into the fierce bone chilling winds. At this point we were at an altitude of 3,800m, feeling it not just with the chill in the wind but also the lightness of the air.  The altitude and cold however were quickly forgotten as we caught a glimpse of the Ethiopian wolf way off in the distance. An exhilarating moment, we quickly jumped back in our car and sped over for a closer look. We watched as this wild animal, not much larger than a fox, dug away into the burrows for giant plateau rodents, their staple food.

The rare Ethiopian wolf, an incredible wildlife spot The rare Ethiopian wolf, an incredible wildlife spot

We travelled further down the mountain, back to an altitude of 2,600m, arriving at Bale Moutain Lodge. After a restful night sleep and a reviving hot shower in the morning we set off for a hike up Mount Gushari through the bamboo forest towards the 3,200 summit. While this was not an easy trek by any means, the breathtaking views from the summit over the vast Harenna Forest are beautiful, an amazing place to catch your breath. A refreshing change of pace to the excursion of the trek, we spent the afternoon with the local bee keepers as they harvested organic honey from their hives. Nothing beats fresh honey straight from the hive, it was simply delicious. After two nights here, it was regrettably the end of my jet-setting around the country as I drove back for one last  celebration in Addis. A cocktail reception and a night out in a local jazz bar was great fun, the perfect send off.

Trekking through the bamboo forest of Harenna Forest Trekking through the bamboo forest of Harenna Forest

I am incredibly happy to have been given the chance to travel to Ethiopia, with my trip made all the more special by the people. Ethiopians are among the friendliest, most honest and genuinely eager to please people I’ve had the pleasure to meet in all my travels around Africa. Having never been properly colonised by Europe they have an independent dignity which again makes your time in Ethiopia that much more special and unique. Although my trip was exhilaratingly jam-packed, there is so much more of Ethiopia to see and I’m already planning a trip back.  

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