Cheetah and cub in Tarangire National Park
Exploring Tanzania’s Southern Circuit
July 5, 2016

Enigmatic Ethiopia


Ethiopia is one of those countries that you’ve heard about but know little of its history and peoples.  Most will vaguely remember the famine of 1983 and then Ethiopia seems to have dropped off the radar to all but intrepid travelers. 

Much of Ethiopia’s history and historical dates are disputed.  Known as Abyssinia for most of its history, sometime in the 1900’s, the name was changed to Ethiopia but one will find various dates for that as well as multiple spellings for cities throughout the country.  Maps, guidebooks, hotels and road signs will all have various spellings of cities, e.g. Gondar will also be spelled Gonder, even within the city itself.

Considered the birthplace of humanity with the discovery of Lucy in 1974, this East African Rift Valley area has yielded many fossils important to creating a timeline of modern humans as well as stunning landscapes, the Blue Nile and a rich variety of wildlife and birds. 

Ethiopia is steeped in Christianity from biblical times including Queen of Sheba bearing King Solomon’s son and the Ark of the Covenant being brought to the country where it is believed to still reside.  The Axumite Empire was one of the more advanced civilizations and important trade routes between the 1st and 7th centuries AD so one will find Greek and Arab influences throughout their culture.  Ethiopia is the one country in Africa that was never colonized.  Much of the country is still rural with a very strong familial culture.

On Lake Tana you can visit 17th century monasteries on islands via an hour boat ride.  The monasteries are rather plain looking from the outside but the interiors will surprise you with the myriad of paintings and carvings.  It’s amazing that villagers still worship there regularly with monks and priests living on the different compounds.

geladaWe drove through Gondar on our way to the Simien Mountains where the gelada monkeys, sometimes referred to as baboons, are plentiful.  I thought their behavior was more bonobo-like and was amazed at how easily you could walk amongst the group with little interest from them.  The Simien Mountains are stunningly beautiful and I could easily spend days there. 

Lalibela, home of the world famous rock-hewn churches, is the “Petra” of Ethiopia and is a must see while in country.  There are 11 churches carved out of stone below ground with one legend saying they were carved by angels in one day and another legend saying Freemasons built them.  Some sources estimate that it took 40,000 craftsmen to excavate these churches.  Mysterious for sure!  The locals still worship in these churches on Sunday morning, which was quite the experience to see all the women in their finery and white scarves.  Bet Giyorgis is the most spectacular of the churches and not to be missed along with the tunnels.

One of the trip highlights for me was Bale Mountains, again with a surprisingly high altitude over 14,000’.  As stunning as I thought the Simien Mountains were, I thought the Bale region was more so.  Driving through the cloud forest was a treat and the lushness of the forest was unforgettable along with the more barren plateau.

e wolfThe Ethiopian wolf is the most endangered carnivore in Africa and the rarest wolf on Earth.  They live in the Sanetti Plateau at around 13,500’+ in a fiercely wind-blown area with scrub brush and giant mole rats as their main food source.  It was thrilling to see them – 2 sightings for a total of 4 wolves.  Full disclosure, they look like red foxes I see in Boulder!

Ethiopian food is plentiful, with many international dishes as well as local food.  In recent years, their food has become vogue with Ethiopian restaurants popping up in unexpected smaller cities in the US.  As a vegetarian I ate well.  Ethiopian Christians fast around 150+ days a year from breakfast until dinner, meaning they eat no meat but they can eat beans and vegetables.  On any menu there is a “fasting plate” with lentils, veggies, etc. that is perfect for vegetarians.  I’m personally not a fan of the grain, tef, which is what the injera is made from – that’s the spongy bread you scoop Ethiopian food up with. Because I don’t like tef, I was gauche and ate with a fork, but no one seemed to mind or ask me to leave!  The locals will tell you it’s the injera (tef) that makes their runners the best in the world!  You’ll find local beers, nice wines and other liquors at the restaurants and hotels.

There is much to do and see in Ethiopia.  Tourism is not as developed as in other East Africa countries although Ethiopia is also considered to be the Horn of Africa.  The less developed aspect of tourism is a big draw to some travelers as many like to experience cultures and places before being overrun by tourists.