Travels & trekking in Ethiopia

A †report from this beautiful and ever surprising country by Dr. Sue Snape "Ethiopia? Why Ethiopia?" Äì so many friends would ask us. We had plans for a three week trip away from the UK, to include a cultural tour of the northern highlights and a two week trek in the spectacular Simien Mountains. A little more than 12 hours travelling time after leaving Heathrow, our domestic Ethiopian Airlines flight descended through the patchy clouds over Lalibella. A timeless landscape of fields, ravines, and tiny villages appeared beneath us. Soon after, the 50 seater prop taxied to a halt in front of an airport terminal the size of a golf clubhouse. As the engines stopped, we descended the steps onto warm tarmac. It was then that we were struck by the space, and the silence, of Africa. For the next couple of days we explored the remarkable churches of Lalibella. Hewn out of solid bedrock over 700 years ago, they are still a centre of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Christians from all over the country. Though very dark inside, the churches' interiors are all elaborately painted with religious art and stories to educate the pious, but largely illiterate, congregations. The town itself seemed to echo the wider country Äì development is slow, but it is happening. The main street is newly paved, and there is even some electricity, but each evening the pungent smell of wood smoke still emerges from the local's Tuckels - traditional thatched mud huts. Next stop was Bahar Dar, a town of 100,000 people, where our hotel was on the shores of Lake Tana Äì the source of the Blue Nile. A short cycle up to a hill above town gave superb views over the lake, the town and the fertile green fields that stretched for as far as the eye could see Äì more "British home counties" than the stereotype of a famine-struck desert. Another internal flight and a 2 hour minibus journey took us to Debark where our trek began. At first our route took us through farmland, where crowds of local children would throng around us, but soon we had climbed up to over 3500m, and into dramatic open grasslands scattered with Giant Lobelia trees. For several days our walk took us along the top of 500m cliffs; home to the famous Gelada Baboons, and offering stunning views over many miles of patchwork countryside lying far below. Each evening, as tired legs carried us into camp we would be met by the cheery local support staff, who would prepare our meals and endless mugs of tea. In the morning, they'd load our kitbags onto the mules, and be gone before we knew it. By the second week we had got through the National Park to the foot of Ras Deshen, 4456m, the fourth highest peak in Africa, and the biggest day on the trek. Towards the top we were greeted by some local shepherds Äì boys aged ten to fifteen who live on the stony plateau above 4000m for 10 months of the year, tending their sheep and goats; no school for them. Breakfast at Sona campsite, Simien mountains trek The following day brought fresh surprises. A huge sloping field of golden barley was being harvested - by hand. Nearby there were biblical scenes of oxen (and horses) threshing the freshly cut crop, and men winnowing it in the breeze. Now the path took us off the high plateau and down into the lush, forested, valley below. The temperature climbed, but our new-found fitness, luxurious long lunches and afternoons spent bathing in natural pools, meant that the final few days' walking felt more like a series of gentle strolls than a tropical expedition. All too soon we had walked back to the roadhead, where cool drinks and our minibus awaited us; back to Addis and then Äòcivilisation' as we know it. So why Ethiopia? It is different Äì very different, and not what you would expect. It's a country full of surprises, beauty, culture and a lot more to go back to. A 15 day archaeological, cultural and trekking tour of northern Ethiopia starts from around £1,950 per person including flights, depending on operator and itinerary. Longer itineraries with extended trekking as described here, a community project or a visit to the anthropological wonderland of the Omo Valley in the south of the country, are also possible. † Please get in touch for more details.