Seeing the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela on TV and in books is not enough to prepare you for the experience of walking inside them for real. Carved entirely out of rock, the still functioning churches are large, artistically refined and mostly in excellent states of preservation. An early morning visit, when locals come to seek blessings and inspiration, shows their mystical side. The longer you visit the more you will be filled with wonders.
With deep canyons and bizarrely jagged mountains sculpting scenery so awesome that if you saw it painting you might question whether it was real or not, the Simien Mountains are one of the wonders of the natural world. They’re an important preserve for some of Ethiopia’s endemic wildlife and sitting amid a troop of tame gelada monkeys at Sankaber is an experience you will never forget. This is terrific trekking territory but also easily accessible by car.
The Lower Omo Valley is a remarkable cultural crossroads. From the Mursi people and their lip plates to Banna with their calabash hats to the body painting Karo, tradition runs deep here. While the commonly held notion that the more than a dozen ethnic groups residing here live completely outside modern society is wrong walking through the markets and villages or attending one of the many ceremonies really is a bit like stepping back in time.
Timkat, the feast of Epiphany, celebrates the baptism of Christ with a three-day festival starting on 19 January. Join the procession behind regalia-draped priests as the church tabots (replicas of the Ark of the Covanent ) are taken to a nearby body of water on the afternoon of the eve of Timkat. Next morning, the tabots are paraded back to the church accompanied by much singing and dancing. Easily Ethiopia’s most colourful festival.
Gondar preserves a treasure trove of history. The walls of the Royal Enclosure contains a half-dozen medieval palaces and a host of legends; you can easily imagine the grand feasts they held here as you walk among them. Further out are peaceful and atmospheric sites, including Fasiladas’Bath,the Kuskuam complex and Debre Berhan Sellassie Church,saved from the marauding Sudanese Dervishes by a swarm of bees.
The Ethiopian wolf is the rarest canid in the world, but on the 4000m high Sanetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains you are almost guaranteed to see them. And when you ‘re not watching wolves hunt giant molerats, your eyes will be drawn to the fairy-tale forests draped in ‘old man’s beard’ and the sheer drop of the the Harena Escarpment. Though the mountains are prime trekking territory, there’s no need to need to step out out of your car to enjoy them since you can drive right through on the highest all-weather road in Africa.
The actively volcanic Danakil Depression features a permanent lava lake and a vast field of yellow and orange sulphuric rocks. Just as interesting are the hearty Afar people who eke out a living from the baking, cracked plains. Though there are regular tours into its depths, travel here is not easy due to the lack of roads, services and normal temperature. The Danakil Depression may feel inhospeatable, but the sense of exploration is real.
Culinary delights in the Horn of Africa? Yes, it’s possible. It is easy to travel here with the thought that the region subsists on rice or pasta and sauce. But hunt around and you’ll be positively surprised. Ethiopian food, and the myriad ways it’s prepared, is some of the most diverse on the continent.
Addis Ababa is evolving at a fast pace. The noisy, bustling capital of Ethiopia is blessed with a balmy climate, with cloudless blue skies for about eight months of the year. It offers plenty of cultural highlights, including the Ethnological Museum and the National Museum. Addis is also famed for its buzzing restaurant scene and night-life, with lots of eateries, bars, galleries and clubs. Delve in!
By far the most intriguing city in Ethiopia, Harar is a joy to Explore. Getting lost in its crooked alleyways is just as fascinating as visiting the many museums, markets and traditional homes packed inside the old city walls. And then there are the hyenas. Two families feed them by hand, and let you do it too, but these large carnivores wander throughout the city and you may just bump into one while walking about at night. Thankfully, they find enough scraps of meat so that they have no interest in people.
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