They call it the “Land of Origins”.
Ethiopia is an intriguing country where every answer leads to more questions.
It is an ancient land of endless stories that will pique your curiosity.
Legends merge with facts, sights defy belief and at times blind faith trumps scientific proof.
1. Go for the scenery
Viewed from the air Ethiopia looks like an inaccessible collection of mountains. Closer inspection reveals hundreds of small settlements reached by impossible looking roads, surrounded by cultivated lands. Rivers twist and turn, lakes sparkle and cities sprawl. The Great Rift Valley looks like a giant scar on the landscape and cuts the country in half.
Colour,texture and light are the dominating impressions.
Clothing and fabrics in bright clean hues contrast with the pure white of Priest’s robes and traditional dress. Autumn tones cover rolling hills, and trees and shrubs shout for attention with their lush deep greens.
From higher up the views from the mountains are richly textured in a spectrum of blues and grays, and the light brings details from afar into sharp focus.
The cities are an energetic, jostling clash of colours, sounds and scents while the countryside offers calming pastoral scenes that seem to stretch to eternity.
This country is very, very pretty.
2. Go for the coffee
“In Ethiopia we don’t just grow coffee; we live coffee each and every day. It’s embedded in the DNA of our daily life” so say the folks at Garden of Coffee in Addis Ababa.
Coffee is served black and is very strong, but delicious.
Nothing tastes better than hand selected, single origin beans, artisan roasted while you wait. In Ethiopia a cup of coffee begins with the first tantalising aroma of roasting beans and ends with an aftertaste of gritty dark brown energy, and a shy Ethiopian smile.
Look out for the coffee vendors on the side of the road, in hotel lobbies and cafes, and even at the airports. Rows of cups are laid out, a bag of beans open on the floor and a small brazier providing heat for the clay roasting pan. The roasting is done intuitively and the barista uses the smells, sounds and appearance of the beans to tell when they are perfectly done.
At Garden of Coffee it is all about maintaining the connection to the origin. Relationships are being built and jobs created as links between the farmers, pickers, roasters and wholesalers are forged, creating a 100% Ethiopian product.
3. Go for the architecture
If structures like Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza fascinate you, then Ethiopia will blow your mind.
Stelae Park in the city of Aksum is home to soaring obelisk like structures, some as high as 33 meters. A fallen stele weighing an estimated 520 tonnes, the equivalent weight of about 120 elephant, is thought to have collapsed while being erected way back in the 7th Century.
The monolithic churches at Lalibela are almost incomprehensible. Thousands of workers took 26 years and 6 months to create 11 churches, many linked by underground tunnels. Four of the churches were built by first disconnecting the rock by chipping a channel all the way around it and creating a water drainage system. Then the remaining rock was carved into an intricately decorated, perfectly proportioned church with many rooms and alcoves.
Standing at the entrance to one of the churches, looking up to the top some ten meters high, and imagining 12th Century workers using basic hand held tools to create this thing of beauty boggles the mind.
The Medieval castles in Gondar are referred to as Camelot castles but to me some parts were reminiscent of the Zimbabwe Ruins. They offer insight into the lives of great Kings, Emperors and noblemen in the 1600’s.
4. Go for the value
For South Africans the currency is in our favour as ZAR 1 = 1.74 Birr. Shopping for coffee, scarves, cottons and traditional Ethiopian crosses, woven goods and food is very cost effective. Daily living costs range from cheap to easily affordable depending on your choice of accommodation, transport and meals.
On average I paid the equivalent of ZAR70 for a scarf, ZAR 80 for an Ethipian cross. A cup of coffee set me back between ZAR 5 – 10 and a fully loaded pizza was around ZAR65
5. Go for the variety
The history goes back to the beginning of time and you can meet Lucy, the 3,5 million year old African lady at the National Museum in Addis Ababa. This museum and the Ethnographic Museum at the University will keep history buffs entertained for days.
The country is home to 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and having been enchanted by 3 of them, I plan to go back to see the remaining 6.
I am always drawn to water and while a day and night spent on Lake Babogaya in Debre Zeit was fabulous, I need to visit Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls.
Trail running and hiking in the 3-4000 meter mountains are the ultimate challenge for athletic types or you can join the 40 000 competitors in the Great Ethiopian Run held annually in Addis Ababa
The cultures are many and varied but the dancing fascinated me. Tribes focus on different body parts, some using mainly the shoulders, others the waist, hips, legs or feet. The movements are intricate, highly energetic and very compelling to observe as they seem to almost dislocate their joints in a staccato manner. Much of the dancing starts slowly and builds to an almost manic crescendo of whirling, leaping, stamping and head-banging.
6. The Accessibility
Ethiopian Airlines are not to be confused with stereotypical African airlines, known rightly or not for old aircraft, unreliable schedules and a lack of anything resembling Western efficiency and comfort.
This airline is the fastest growing airline in Africa with seven decades of successful operations, and a string of African and International awards and accolades to its name. Since December 2011 it has been part of the biggest airline network, Star Alliance.
It has a modern fleet of aircraft including 2 Airbus Dreamliners and 16 Boeing 787’s.
Ethiopia Air flies to 95 destinations around the world and South African’s can fly directly to Addis Ababa from Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban for around R7000 -R10 000 return.
Ethiopia airline flies to 19 domestic destinations and internal flight prices are comparable to those of South Africa’s low cost carrier specials.
Visit their website and start planning your dream holiday to Ethiopia.
Disclosure. My visit to Ethiopia was as a guest of Ethiopian Airlines. Thanks must also go to the Ethiopian Tourism Organisation and the wonderful guides and drivers for showing me around. Special thanks to Bathi for being the admin fairy and airport check in ninja.