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Quality Executive Julie Dent recently spent a few days on a tour of Ethiopia. Here, she tells us a little bit about her trip…
From the medieval city of Lalibela to the peaks of the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia is a joy to explore. Find out more here
I arrive in Addis Ababa to grey skies and thick cloud. Rainy season is upon us – happily our groups don’t travel at this time of year! I’ve been told to look out for my guide, “a tall man with dread hair” – Eyob will be my guide, companion, expert, and next week, my trainee, as he will be attending the Saga tour managers’ training course.
He’s already a priceless knowledgeable gem and I am grateful and privileged to be travelling with him.
Travelling across Lake Tana
I leave my luggage at the hotel and, after meeting the captains and inspecting the boats we’ll use, I set off across the lake to Zege peninsular. Travelling across Lake Tana – the source of the Blue Nile – and the movement of the boat is relaxing for a weary traveler, but there’s no time for sleep with swooping pied kingfishers and great white pelicans to admire!
Back on land, I have a moderate uphill walk through scenic forest to the Ura Kidane monastery, passing local children selling papyrus models of the fishing boats I’d earlier seen on the lake.
There are also various excellent souvenirs and crafts on display, including hand-painted wood and goat skin in the style of the paintings we’re about to see at the monastery. Inside, the monastery is eerily silent with no tour groups.
Eyob describes the biblical scenes and their significance as I admire the paintings and architecture of the round mud, bamboo and wooden structure.
On the way out we meet a monk, traditionally dressed in robes and headwear and yet chatting enthusiastically on a mobile phone. Modern times…
Heavy rain this morning gave way to dull cloud as we take a beautiful scenic drive on the main road from Bahir Dar to Gondar. My first taste of Ethiopian countryside.
Interesting to see the little villages, green fields, agricultural landscape, activities of the village, crops, what’s in the market and being sold along the roads.
The men all carry a stick that has three purposes: they put it behind their necks and hang their arms over it for relaxation, they use it to carry parcels over their shoulder, and they use it for balance/protection walking home late at night after a few drinks/khat!
There are plenty of kids about as it’s school holidays and they suddenly appear as we stop for photos.
I’m tempted to give them a pen or a jelly baby but Eyob forbids it, telling me that we can take donations for a local school we’ll visit and give books, pens, tennis balls and more to the teacher to give out. I make a note to add this to the passenger itinerary.
An ornithologist's paradise
We drive through fields and over mountains, enjoying spectacular views. There are so many birds – we see Egyptian geese, lovebirds, red-cheeked cordon bleu, glossy starlings, sacred ibis, hornbills, weaver birds and four huge, prehistoric-looking spoonbills.
Before too long we arrive at Gondar, once the capital of the country, until 1855. Later we will visit the royal enclosure but first, lunch.
Today is Wednesday. Wednesdays and Fridays are termed ‘fasting days’, where no animal products are eaten.
We eat ‘injera’, a typical Ethiopian bread, made with water, yeast and a grain called tef, with toppings of potato, chickpea, cabbage and spicy lentils.
The injera is greyish, with a tripe-like appearance and not that attractive but it acts as a conduit for the veg and together it’s all delicious. Not bad for fasting food!
The Royal Enclosure
After a few hotel, restaurant and road inspections, we head for the vast 17th century castle complex, one of many UNESCO sites.
Whilst we’re there the sun emerges and suddenly it’s 25’c. Next we visit King Fasilides’ Swimming Pool, a palace with a moat filled up for bathing, now famous for its epiphany service when pilgrims come to be baptised, first hearing the night-long service then plunging into the water at dawn.
As we travel, we’re getting higher, and the temperature is cold so I sit in the hotel bar beside the fire and reflect on a fascinating day.
It’s an early start today and we meet at 7am in reception to leave for the airport… or should I say 1 o’clock…?
Ethiopia has its own system of time, 6 hours behind standard time, whereby the day starts at 7am or 1 o’clock and continues until 12 o’clock (6pm) as these are generally the daylight hours.
If you have a 9am appointment, you meet “at 3”. If you go for a beer at 9pm, you meet at “3 at night”.
All quite sensible really! It only gets complicated when I struggle to work out the time from the clocks in reception. Do they signify normal time or Ethiopian time, I ask? “Neither madam, they’re both broken”. Okay…
En route to Gondar
We make our way to Gondar airport for our 9.15 flight, which is actually at quarter past 3… Anyway, you get the idea!
We fly over magnificent green mountains split by gorges and rivers, some with tiny settlements on top, pausing for a bus stop in Lalibela before continuing to Axum.
My first stop is to check out the local hospital. I’m interested to see the levels of assistance and care in order to report back to our field operations department in case any difficulties are experienced whilst our guests are on tour.
Next it’s on to our overnight hotel for inspection and lunch before setting out to see the sights of Historic Axum, the first royal capital of Ethiopia under King Menelik I, son of King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Queen of Sheba.
The Holy of Holies
Axum is known as the ‘Holy of Holies’ as it plays host to the Church of St Mary of Zion, which stands beside the chapel reputed to house the real Ark of the Covenant.
It is always guarded by a monk who must be a virgin and may never leave until he is given a sign by the angels. The current incumbent has been there 20 years since the age of 22!
We see the stelae field with its huge obelisks made of single pieces of granite, brought probably by elephants from a quarry 10km away, and carved and decorated according to the importance of the person whose tomb it guarded.
The palace of the Queen of Sheba
A few more hotel inspections and lunch, then on to the recently-unearthed remains of the palace of the Queen of Sheba.
Excavations will continue once a grant is received from UNESCO but there may be a whole ancient city beneath our feet.
Young girls selling the typical brightly coloured baskets of Axum accost me and I politely buy one because they are sweet and I feel like I’ve ‘given something back’ (honestly, you should see my house…).
As we arrive back to the newer, modern cathedral of St Mary’s – built in 1965 by the order of Emperor Haile Selassie – a three-hour service is coming to an end and pilgrims spill out from the church, a sea of white headscarves and robes with the odd splash of yellow indicating the presence of a nun.
I’m given a private tour of the church and its museum by the softly-spoken deacon who gently kisses the icons after each whispered explanation. Tomorrow we fly on, to Lalibela…
Huge rain last night gives way to a dry, cool, sunny day today. We are not blessed with a wealth of great hotels in Axum, but as usual in these situations, we aim to stay in the best option available.
Despite a cracking night’s sleep in a comfortable room, it’s time for another bracing cold shower and a breakfast that made me glad I packed the emergency cereal bars.
We will work on this with the hotel and make sure they provide a nice fresh breakfast plate for our guests.
In the meantime, I make a note to add to our passenger itinerary that it’s always nice to have some home comforts whilst travelling in exotic climes so suggest that the customers bring along some sweets or snacks as a treat.
On the subject of comfort food, Eyob has promised shepherd’s pie later – what that’s all about?
The home of the coffee bean
Something never in short supply is coffee.
Ethiopia is the home of the coffee bean and the aroma of roasting beans is everywhere, whether from the coffee ceremonies performed in restaurants, hotels and even airports, to the informal coffee stalls in the street where locals squat down on tiny wooden stools and sip freshly-brewed coffee served along with a burner containing charcoal and frankincense.
After flying to Lalibela we go straight to check out the lunch stop, which turns out to be an abstract spaceship-shaped restaurant on the ridge called Ben Abeba.
The Ben reference comes from its Scottish owner, Susan, who started the business in 2007. Ah! Now Eyob’s promises of shepherd’s pie begin to make sense.
While she tries to convert our table neighbour from Addis into supporting Motherwell rather than Chelsea, we eat homemade shepherd’s pie and marvel at the staggeringly beautiful views.
Lammergeiers (bearded vultures) soar and circle at eye level just metres away, looking for prey below. Susan is delighted that our groups are coming.
She once had Saga house insurance and her friend goes on our cruises! She’s building four high-end bungalows, opening next Easter and I wonder aloud whether she needs a housekeeper…
I discover after that the views I so admired at lunch are shared by our two clean, comfortable and quirky hotels in Lalibela, where every room has a balcony facing the valley – perfect!
The history of Lalbela
Soon we set off for Lalbela’s rock-hewn churches. In the 10th century AD, Axum fell to Queen Judith, and the dynasty lasting from the 10th century BC to Haile Selassie was broken for 250 years.
During this time the capital moved to Roha and one of the kings ordered the creation of these churches so they were hidden from the attacks of non-believers and his people could worship in peace.
King Lalibela then gave his name to the town. Cut out of the rock, probably by thousands of Egyptian workers, each church consists of a single piece of rock so there was no room for errors when carving the designs, internal arches and pillars!
It must have been a huge undertaking in those days – equally a feat of engineering, endeavour and devotion.
Our customers will cover all 11 churches during their two-night stay. I’m short of time so I check out the ones that are most difficult to access, and find out it’s not easy!
We will have assistance from local guides who will give a helping hand but I make sure we add to the itinerary that this part of the tour is strenuous and walking shoes with ankle support are highly recommended.
But it’s worth the toil as clambering through the moss-covered rocks down – and very much up – uneven paths, emerging from narrow cave-like hollows to discover another hidden church sheltering in the rock makes one feel like Indiana Jones!
The churches are miraculous in their design, in almost perfect condition, they feel untouched and pure – inside it’s cool, dark and silent, sending shivers…
Quite emotional to think of all those who have prayed there over the years and kept these incredible structures safe. I’m fine Eyob, just something in my eye….
Today it’s Saturday, which means market day in Lalibela, and our guests will be able to experience the sight of this huge gathering.
As we drive out of town bound for the airport I announce to Eyob that according to my Fitbit yesterday we did about 17000 steps, 14km and the equivalent of 78 staircases.
He seems moderately impressed before pointing out that many of the people we are passing on the road are heading up to the market from about the same distance away… up a mountain… driving goats… and they’ve got massive parcels of produce on their heads. Point taken!
Returning to Addis
We return to Addis; at this point the tour will end for some, whilst others continue on the extension to the Bale Mountains and Rift Valley so I’m off to check this part now.
The landscape changes to flat land and we have a five-hour drive. The road out of Addis is slow with trucks travelling on the same east-bound road which will lead to east Ethiopia, onward to Djibouti and eventually the sea.
Good roads all the way. Lots of interesting villages, and as it’s Saturday, lots of markets too.
It’s a bit unsavoury but of course, a necessity – part of our tour planning is to ensure there are decent loo stops along the way.
I’ve been pleased so far with the selection of comfort break venues which have all been ‘sitters’ rather than ‘squatters’ and reliable in terms of paper, soap and running water. It’s an odd job but someone’s got to do it!
This afternoon’s comfort break is at a hotel beside Lake Ziway, a haven for giant maribou storks as big as a small child, great white pelicans and lesser flamingos.
These huge birds crowd the lake, it’s quite spectacular to see. The hotel itself belongs to legendary long distance runner and national hero Haile Gebreselassie, who has a handful of resorts.
The sporting theme continues as they are showing Newcastle v Arsenal in the bar. The team of choice in Ethiopia unusually is not Man Utd, so popular in the rest of Africa, but Arsenal, so the bar is packed.
Nobody can explain to me why Arsene Wenger’s men have captured the nation’s hearts but whether a bumper sticker or replica shirt, it’s arsenal all the way here.
Pity, just when we were all getting along…! Football is definitely the favourite sport here and in every village we pass we find a foosball table under a shade tree surrounded by a crowd of little boys yelling and furiously twirling the handles.
An abundance of greenhouses!
As we continue, the most prominent feature of the landscape is greenhouses. Acres and acres of them.
They are growing flowers, roses mainly, for export to the Netherlands. In this town it is a huge employer, and the company has invested in schools, clinics and infrastructure.
We arrive at Sabana lodge which is busy with weekenders from Addis.
It’s a lovely bungalow style resort on the Lake Langano, ideal for relaxation and with beautiful gardens – birds everywhere, sparrow weavers, superb starlings, yellow-billed hornbills… but it’s just for one night as tomorrow we head for the Bale Mountains in search of wolves…
Today starts with a wonderful dawn chorus, a terrific breakfast and sunshine. We are heading to Bale Mountains today and we have a long drive ahead of us.
We like Sabana Lodge but it’s good to have a backup so we visit an Eco-lodge further down the lakeside. It’s reached along an unmade road – the first of many today – so we are treated to a ‘massage’ as the Toyota pitches and rolls over the uneven ground.
When driving off-road the first secret is to relax your whole body and go with the movement of the vehicle. If you tense your body and cling on to the armrest you’ll end up with sore muscles as if you’ve been riding a horse all day. The second secret is to wear a sturdy bra!
The people at the lodge are charming and the place is a little gem. During the meeting we are watched from a nearby tree by a majestic fish eagle, and beside it a tree full of fiscal shrikes, as a two-foot high Abyssinian Ground Hornbill wanders by.
The manager explains how he prefers to keep the grass between the bar and the lakeside fairly short as it’s easier for the hippos to graze. Hippos?
He points to some grey lumps in the water and hands me some binoculars. Yep, those are hippos alright! Aren’t hippos rather aggressive towards humans though? Nah, not these ones, he shrugs. Okay. Good.
We pass through Sheshamene, the town granted to his Rastafarian followers by King Haile Selassie. Many returned to Jamaica due to restrictions posed during the Communist time, but there is still a small community.
Dreadlocked guys sit in front of cafes decorated with ‘unite Africa’ slogans and the lion of Judah amidst the distinct whiff of ganja. We’re out of the orthodox Christian Amharic north and into Oromo territory, the second largest community in the country.
White robes give way to brightly coloured headscarves and churches to mosques. It’s Sunday and there are lots of people about, not working, just socialising along the road.
Bale Mountains National Park
Arriving into the lower part of the Bale Mountains National Park we soon spot baboons, warthogs, nyala and menelik bushbuck.
Our guests will have a walking tour here so they can see the animals close up. We have a quick packed lunch as black and white colobus monkeys clown around in the trees, then take manage to time our next loo stop perfectly.
The world athletics championship is on live TV and the whole bar erupts as Ethiopia take gold, silver and bronze in the women’s 1500m.
They have to settle for silver in the men’s version of the race, missing out to Kenya, their neighbours and great long distance athletics rivals.
We experience heavy rain as we as climb to over 10000 feet but the mountain scenery is stunning. We reach the Senetti plateau and the landscape is rocky and stark with only ‘everlasting plants’, a short scrubby bush that resembles snow.
Ethiopian wolves are down in numbers to about 500 and are extremely rare. Their prey is the giant mole rat which only comes out during the sunshine.
The weather is dull so we’ll be lucky to see one… We are lucky! A lone wolf (they are very territorial and hunt alone) appears right in front of us beside the road and circles the vehicle once before taking off across the plateau.
The perfect place for a wedding
We make our way off the plateau and descend to 2400m, passing Oromo men and women on horseback, typical of this region and something we haven’t seen before.
We arrive at Bale Mountain Lodge just as a wedding party is leaving, having had their photos taken there. The bride looks stunning whilst her hot and bothered bridesmaids are packed into flouncy, lime green polyester. They won’t thank her for that!
We enjoy tea on the terrace with the owner Yvonne, before an inspection then dinner. Yvonne and Guy decided to build the lodge in 2013 after Guy left his posting in the army.
The lodge was constructed hand in hand with the national park authorities and they often host scientists studying the unique nature of the park. Following one of these studies and in recognition of their outstanding contribution to local conservation they have recently had a moth named after them!
The lodge is exquisite. I am staying in a room called Bale Monkey and it is a beautiful thatched chalet in the trees with the addition of an al fresco shower!
It’s dark before I get to my room, which is cosy from the lit wood burner. I can’t wait for morning to see the views. Our guests are going to LOVE it here!!!
I’ve set my alarm for 5.30am; it’s still dark but I don’t want to miss the morning chatter of the birds and daybreak over the mountains.
It’s every bit as stunning as I expected, the rising sun sending beams of light into the lush green forest and lighting up the meadow where leopards and lions occasionally roam.
Guests may join an early morning bird walk with the lodge’s expert guides but for us it’s a quick breakfast of homemade pancakes and fresh juice before we head off back across the plateau.
Fortunately the sun is warm, the rats are active and we soon encounter our first wolf, then another, and one more, and then, unusually, three hunting together, presumably from the same family.
An Augur Buzzard glides around seeking his own rat-based breakfast and an endemic Rouget’s Rail ushers its chick back into the bushes when we stop to admire it.
Bound for Awassa
We head back down the mountain through the Rift Valley villages, bound for Awassa. Tonight’s accommodation is at one of Haile Gebreselassie’s resorts in Awassa; a mural of the great athlete adorns the lobby wall.
I’ve a few more days in the city but that’s the end of the tour inspection and I am sad this part of the trip is ending.
It has been an extraordinary week visiting the highlights of this incredible African country which has excited and amazed me, and touched my heart.
The bad times are well and truly behind Ethiopia and this is a country on the move, whose beauty and wonder deserves to be seen by a wider audience.
I am proud to play a small part in bringing our customers to this wonderful destination, and happy that they will have such an enriching experience. Big thanks to all my super drivers and my outstanding guide Eyob whose excellent company, good humour, help and advice has been invaluable
Tell your friends, tell your family! Tell everyone you know! Ethiopia is magical and it is waiting for you!
Discover the timeless mysteries of Ethiopia on a 12-night escorted tour. Find out more here