Ethiopia 2010

Ethiopia is a land of contrasts and surprises.  The highest country in Africa, with twenty peaks over 13,000-feet, it is split in two by the Great Rift Valley.  The twin plateaux of its isolated mountain massifs, rock fortresses set in a sea of sand, are centres of evolutionary invention, having produced one hundred unique flowering plants, and sixty endemic birds and mammals.  Our journey will take us from north to south, from the historic wonders of Lalibela and Axum, to the natural wonders of the Simien and Bale Mountains, which are home to two endemic, and endangered, mammals: the Simien wolf and Gelada baboon.

Ethiopia is the cradle of humankind: one of the oldest known human remains, from 4.4 million years ago, was recently found here.  We will visit a replica of “Lucy”, a mere 3.2 million years old, in her Addis Ababa home.  Ethiopia is also a museum of living nations with over 70 languages spoken in 200 dialects.  During our expedition we will visit the remote Lower Omo Valley, home to the densest concentration of intact tribal cultures in all of Africa.  And we’ll be welcomed by tribal peoples the length and breadth of the country, including the Tigrean, Amhara, and Oromo peoples.

From the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, and the ancient ruins of the Axumite Empire, to the crater lakes of the Great Rift Valley and awesome splendour of the Simien Escarpment, Ethiopia is a land of diverse and majestic landscapes, floral abundance and proud people of infectious charm.  Ethiopia offers perhaps the richest cultural experience in all of Africa and combines it with a diversity of exotic wildlife set against some of the world’s most dramatic scenery.

Day 1;            January 5th

We arrive in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, and transfer to our hotel.  Overnight Sheraton Hotel.

Day 2;            January 6th

After a morning at leisure we begin our exploration of this fascinating country with a city tour of Addis Ababa. Founded in 1886 by Emperor Menelik II and located 8,000 feet above sea level at the foot of the Entoto Mountains, Addis Ababa is considered the diplomatic capital of Africa, being the seat of the African Union and playing host to over 100 foreign embassies. This afternoon we explore the city, visiting the National Museum, home to the partial skeleton of “Lucy”, who, at 3.2 million years old, is one of our earliest hominid relatives. This evening we have dinner at a local restaurant and enjoy a spectacular display of traditional dancing.  Overnight Sheraton Hotel.

Day 3;            January 7th

Today we commence our journey north with a flight across the valley of the Blue Nile, which cuts an immense gorge, deeper than the Grand Canyon, into the Ethiopian highlands.  Our destination is the source of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake. Basing ourselves near Bahir Dar, we spend the afternoon exploring Lake Tana and its famous island monasteries by boat. We visit the 14th Century monasteries of Ura Kidane Meret and Kebran Gabriel, which preserve fine 16th century mural paintings, as well as crowns, crosses and other religious treasures.  Day 4;            January 8th

After breakfast we drive north along the shores of Lake Tana to Gondar, the 17th Century capital of Ethiopia.  Our route crosses pastoral highlands, passing through traditional villages inhabited by Amhara people.  This afternoon we visit the Royal Enclosure, home to the castles of Emperors Fasiladas, Iyasu, Dawit and Mentewab, and we come to understand why this town has been called “the Camelot of Africa”.  We also explore the decorated church of Debre Berhan Sellasie, and the Bath of King Fasiladas, who established Gondar in 1636.

Day 5;            January 9th

We leave Gondar early this morning for a full-day’s exploration of the Simien Mountains National Park, recently proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of both its scenic beauty and the endangered wildlife that it supports. The region includes many summits above 12,000 feet and culminates in the highest point in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen, which at 15,280 feet is the fourth highest mountain in Africa.  Whilst appreciating the breathtaking scenery we will be keeping an eye out for troops of the endemic Gelada, or lion-mane baboon, a terrestrial primate that lives in groups numbering up to 500 individuals, feeding en masse in the high-altitude meadows during the day and roosting along the edge of the escarpment at night.  We also hope to find the endemic walia ibex, a large mountain goat unique to the Simien region, as well as the dapper augur buzzard and spectacular, eagle-sized thick-billed raven, largest of the world’s crows.

Day 6;            January 10th

We depart once again by air to Lalibela, capital of the Zagwe Dynasty in the 12th and 13th Centuries.  Arguably Ethiopia’s greatest attraction, Lalibela’s famous rock-hewn churches have drawn religious pilgrims since the 16th Century and still amaze modern travellers.  King Lalibela is credited with creating these remarkable constructions overnight, with the assistance of “a host of angels”.  Our first stop is the picturesque 13th Century cave church of King Na’akuta La’ab, who ruled Ethiopia for 40 years after King Lalibela’s death.  Excavated into the side of a cliff on the outskirts of town, it boasts panoramic views of the surrounding rugged countryside.  The majority of the rock-hewn churches, however, are situated within the town itself and, after lunch, we begin our exploration of the first church complex.  The area is sacred to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and during our excursions we are sure to encounter brightly-clad priests conducting their ancient ceremonies or pilgrims visiting hermit monks in their subterranean haunts.

Day 7;            January 11th

After breakfast we have the option of climbing, by foot and mule, to visit the spectacularly-situated monastery of Asheten Mariam.  Hewn out of rock atop a 9,000 foot high ridge to the east of Lalibela village, Asheten Mariam is famous for its ornate, 13th Century crosses of King Na’akuta La’ab.  Our other option will be to visit the cave church of Yemrehanna Kristos, located a short distance outside of Lalibela. Considered one of the most beautiful of all Lalibela’s churches, Yemrehanna is unique in that it is built, rather than excavated, within a cave.  This afternoon we complete our exploration of Lalibela with a visit to the second complex of rock-hewn churches in town, culminating with a visit to the famous cruciform church of St. George.

Day 8;            January 12th

This morning we continue our northward journey with a flight to Axum, a small town that once formed the capital of the great Aksumite Kingdom.  Ruling over an area that stretched from Sudan to Arabia, the empire lasted for nearly a thousand years, until the rise of Islam in the 8th Century.  Aksum was one of the first kingdoms to embrace Christianity as the state religion, at the beginning of the 4th Century, and King Ezana’s coins were the first in the world to bear the sign of the Christian cross.  This afternoon we tour the area’s main historical sites, including the Archaeological Museum, the Zion Cathedral where the original Ark of the Covenant is said to be housed, the Stellae Park, where magnificent 3rd and 4th Century stone monoliths tower 100 feet into the sky, and finally, the ruined palace reputed to have been home to the Queen of Sheba.

Day 9;            January 13th

After breakfast we return by air to Addis Ababa, and commence our journey down the Great Rift Valley.  En route we will pass many of the lakes that formed when the Rift began its monumental split.  The first lake we visit is Lake Hora, where we get our first view of the waterbirds that make these lakes their home.  We overnight in the town of Debreziet, on the shore of Lake Bishoftu.

Day 10;          January 14th

This morning we continue our journey southwards to Lake Langano, stopping at Abiatta-Shala National Park en route.  Although the two lakes of Abiatta and Shala lie side by side, they could not be more different in character: Abiatta is a shallow salt pan thronged with flocks of lesser and greater flamingos, whilst Shala is a deep, blue crater lake supporting Africa’s most important breeding colony of great white pelicans.

Day 11;          January 15th

Today we continue southwards towards the Bale Mountains, traversing a high mountain pass with sweeping panoramic views of the Ethiopian highlands.  We stop at the park headquarters at  Dinsho to search the moss-festooned Juniper forest for endemic birds and mammals, such as the handsome mountain nyala, Menelik’s bushbuck, groups of clamorous wattled ibis, and the strange Abyssinian catbird, before continuing on to the regional capital of Goba, situated at the foot of the Bale Mountains.

Day 12;          January 16th

A dawn ascent of the steep escarpment above Goba brings us to the Sanetti Plateau, atop the Bale Mountains, at an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet.  The plateau is one of the last refuges of the endemic Ethiopian wolf, the world’s rarest and most endangered canid, with a population of fewer than 1000 individuals remaining.  These beautiful wolves live only in this open Afro-Alpine heath, amongst towering giant lobelia plants, where they feed on giant molerats captured through a combination of speed and stealth.  Birds are conspicuous in the high-altitude meadows and we should encounter Ethiopian endemics such as spot-breasted lapwing, Rouget’s rail and Abyssinian siskin.  We continue our drive across the plateau to the other-worldly surrounds of the Harenna Forest, where elegant Guereza colobus monkeys feed in trees dripping with Old Man’s Beard moss.

Days 13 to 16;    January 17th to 20th Our charter flight this morning will sweep us from the highland world of the Ethiopian wolf to the savannah of the Lower Omo Valley, an area that is home to one of the densest concentrations of distinct tribes in all of Africa.  Based in a local hotel, we will dedicate a full three days to exploring this remarkable area, visiting different markets and villages to encounter people of different tribes.  Especially famous are the Mursi people, renowned for the large clay discs that the women wear, inserted into a slit in their lower lips; the Hamer, whose women adorn themselves with elaborate braided hairstyles coloured with red clay; and the Karo, whose people are highly decorated with clay body paint.  We also visit villages of the Banna and Ari tribes.  Whilst in the Omo Valley, we explore Mago National Park, home to savannah wildlife such as lesser kudu, Defassa waterbuck and Guenther’s dik-dik.

Day 17;          January 21st   

Today we return by air to Addis Ababa. The city boasts one of the largest open-air markets in Africa, known as the Merkato, and this afternoon we experience the hustle and bustle of this vibrant area and scour the curio shops for souvenirs of our expedition through Ethiopia.  Tonight we enjoy our farewell dinner, and prepare for our flights home.

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