I flew into Addis Ababa on Ethiopian Airlines from Washington, DC, which is the only nonstop flight from North America to East Africa — making Ethiopia relatively easy to access and a great jumping off point to other countries on the continent. Ethiopian Airlines also features the most modern fleet of any African airline.
For 14 days, I traveled throughout the country, following the historic northern route and visiting the remote tribal lands in the south, as well as some beautiful national parks. Few on this side of the Atlantic realize the amazing and varied experiences Ethiopia has to offer visitors; the country is not only the source of the majority of the Nile River’s water, but it is also home to lush forests and rolling, green fields and pastures.
Ethiopia was one of the first of the world’s nations to adopt Christianity early in the first millennium and never converted to Islam, as did many of its neighbors in North Africa. Northern Ethiopia was the seat of several influential kingdoms and whether you’re visiting the beautifully preserved painted monasteries on the islands of Lake Tana or climbing around the rock-hewn churches found in Lalibela, the distinctive history and culture of Ethiopia is simply fascinating. In Gondar, sometimes called the “Camelot of Africa,” I explored medieval palaces. In Axum, I got to see the place where legend claims the Ark of the Covenant is safely kept as well as the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba. A highlight for me was visiting the famous church of St. George in Lalibela on St. George’s day, and witnessing the devoted coming from near and far in their traditional white clothes.
I continued to the south part of Ethiopia with great anticipation. As a child, I heard stories about this region of the country from my grandfather who spent time there with a Christian organization helping locals of the Gelab tribe in the Omo Valley. When my grandpa began losing his eyesight, I recall watching old film reels from his trip and explaining to him what was being shown on the screen. These trips changed my grandparents’ lives and their priorities. And shortly before my trip, I discovered that one of the grandchildren of the gentleman my grandpa worked with was raising his family in the Omo Valley — and working with his father to continue the vision of his grandfather.
In the south, I visited villages and markets and witnessed the daily lives of some of Africa’s most endangered cultures. Still living as they have for centuries, their lives have not been greatly affected by the changing world around them. My grandpa left me many items from his trip including traditional jewelry and iconic headrests, which were given to him as gifts by the local people. I saw similar items everywhere I turned.
I was very fortunate to have the chance to attend a coming-of-age ritual for a Hamer man. In this bull-jumping ceremony, the community gathers to support the young man in his quest to run back and forth over the backs of a line of bulls to prove he is ready for marriage. The event is not complete without traditional dancing, chanting, and scarring.
I also had the opportunity to cross the Omo River by canoe just a few miles from where my grandpa worked. It was a very special experience for me to meet the Gelab people and look through my grandpa’s pictures with some of the locals who claimed to recognize some of the people in the images. They spoke very positively about the family my grandpa worked with downstream and said they appreciated their efforts to continue helping the community.
In addition to immersing myself in the history and culture of Ethiopia, I also visited two stunning national parks in the Simien Mountains and the Bale Mountains. There, I saw the endemic Gelada baboons and the Ethiopian wolves. Along the way, we spent a couple nights at resorts on the shores of Great Rift Valley Lakes, home to wonderful and varied bird and wildlife.
More and more people are becoming aware of Ethiopia’s wonderful sights and friendly people. In the past two years, tourist numbers have doubled. There are a number of new 4- and 5-star hotels opening in Addis Ababa and hotels are beginning to improve around the country. I am particularly eager to see the Bale Mountain Lodge, which will provide sorely needed choice in accommodations for those wanting to visit this impressive national park.
Much of the tourist infrastructure is still not up to international standards, especially for those used to luxury, so one must travel with an open mind and a lot of patience. However, the experience and the warm welcome of the Ethiopian people make the destination a must for adventurous travelers. Cox & Kings’ fantastic local guides help bring the country alive and smooth out the inevitable bumps that happen along the way.
Now is the time to visit Ethiopia, while the destination remains less developed. Next fall, I plan to return to the south and explore farther into the tribal lands of Omo Valley, possibly see where my grandpa worked, and ascend to the Sayetti Plateau in the Bale Mountains. I invite you to join me on this 2014 journey to explore tribal Ethiopia, featuring the Bale Mountains and the Omo Valley.