The EA guide to Ethiopia safaris

Ethiopia safaris and tours reward the traveller with an experience brimming with rich culture, impressive history, awe-inspiring architecture, and truly unique and breathtaking landscapes.

The city of Axum (or Aksum) is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. Ethiopia was one of the first nations to adopt Christianity, and for several centuries the city of Aksum was the country’s seat of religious and political power. According to legend, the Queen of Sheba once lived here, one of the Three Wise Men is buried here, and the Ark of the Covenant is housed within the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (spoiler alert: no one’s allowed to see it).

Take a boat out onto Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia. Located in Amhara Region in the north-western Ethiopian Highlands, Lake Tana is roughly 84 kilometres long and 66 kilometres wide. It’s also the source of the Blue Nile, which flows 5,223km north to the Mediterranean Sea. The remote islands and forested peninsulas of Lake Tana are home to centuries-old monasteries, full of paintings, treasures, ancient books and other artefacts.

Ethiopia’s bustling capital of Addis Ababa is home to both the National Museum (where you can see the remains of the world-famous skeleton “Lucy” – our 3.2 million-year-old ancestor) and the Ethnological Museum, which boasts an amazing collection of religious icons). There are also lots of great restaurants, eateries and bars in Addis – this is the best place in the country to sample fantastic Ethiopian cuisine.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are one of Ethiopia’s nine UNESCO World Heritage sites, and are home to several religious festivals each year. These architectural marvels stand as a monument to the peoples’ faith and skill.

Between its great cities and and ancient sites, Ethiopia boasts some of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the world, taking you from one of the lowest places on Earth to thousands of metres above sea level. Here you can experience true wilderness; from deserts to lush forests, boiling depressions to freezing mountain tops, and everything in between.

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The best time for an Ethiopia safari

An Ethiopia safari holiday can be enjoyed throughout the year, the most popular months being October through to January. The climate varies wildly due to the vast geographic differences. Bale mountain peaks receive snowfall while the Danakil Desert can have daytime temperatures of 50C and higher. The main impact of weather on travel is South Omo during rainy season, when it’s almost inaccessible. Rains usually fall in April and May, with shorter rains in October.

Wildlife in Ethiopia

Though not widely know for its wildlife, Ethiopia is actually home to a number of rare and and endemic species. The Ethiopian wolf, also known as the Simien fox, is one of those endemic species and is found in only seven isolated regions in the country. It is highly endangered, with less than 500 remaining in the wild. To spot one of these red furred, white bellied, wolves is a real treat. The gelada monkey, also endemic, lives in Ethiopia’s high mountains, and are also known as bleeding-heart monkeys for the red, fur less patch on their chest. Gelada are terrestrial, spending the majority of their time on the ground and live in a diet of mainly grass. Also residing exclusively in Ethiopia is the walia ibex, an endangered species of ibex with great, arching horns. These mountain dwellers are found largely in the Simien Mountains, and there are approximately only 500 individuals left in the wild.

Simien Mountains National Park

Top of the list for an Ethiopia safari tour has to be a visit to the Simien Mountains National Park. Part of the breathtaking Ethiopian Highlands, the Simien Mountains – poetically called the “roof of Africa” – are located in the far north of the country. Formed by volcanic eruptions 40 million years ago, they include Ethiopia’s highest peak, Ras Dejen (4,543 metres) and are one of the few places in Africa to regularly see snow.

The superlatives never end for this place. Homer called the Simiens “chess pieces of the gods”. The park is often referred to as Africa’s Grand Canyon. UNESCO called it one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world” – and then designated part of the park as a World Heritage Site. In other words, it is magnificent; a wonderland of jagged pinnacles, towering rock spires, deep ravines, dramatic plateaus, sheer cliffs, dizzying peaks and jaw-dropping panoramas all round. It is, quite simply, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.

This is fantastic trekking territory (but is also easily accessible by car) – hike into the mountains and you’ll also get to see some fascinating wildlife found nowhere else on Earth, as the national park is home to several incredibly rare animals. There’s the Ethiopian wolf (also known as the Simien fox), the most endangered carnivore in Africa and the rarest canid in the world. There are only around 400 left on the planet, and fewer than 50 of them are found in the Simien Mountains. There’s also the endangered walia ibex and the gelada baboon, both found exclusively in the Ethiopian Highlands. The majestic walia ibex is a giant mountain goat with impressively long, arching horns, while the striking gelada baboon is known as the ‘bleeding heart baboon’ thanks to the scarlet patch of skin on its chest and is, in actual fact, a monkey. As well as these scarlet patches the monkeys, which live in large groups of 100 or more, are famous for their magnificent silver manes, expressive faces and playful antics. Seeing them in the wild will be an absolute highlight on a trip to these mountains. Other animals to look out for include the Anubis and hamadryas baboons, golden jackal and klipspringer antelope. There are also more than 130 bird species, including 16 endemic species. Keep an eye out for the giant Lammergeir, a bearded vulture with a three-metre wingspan.

Lalibela

Located in the Amhara Region of northern Ethiopia, the remote town of Lalibela is home to 11 medieval churches that date back to the 12th century. Any tourist brochures promoting Ethiopia are bound to include a photo of these incredible Ethiopian Orthodox Christian churches: they are stunning and completely unique.

Carved out of rock, they stand in sunken pits so that their roofs are on the same level as the ground that you walk on to reach them. There are currently 1,092 sites on the World Heritage list, but when UNESCO created the original list in 1978, only 12 sites made the grade. The churches of Lalibela was one of them – that’s how special they are.

There are 11 churches in total, including Biete Medhani Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, and Biete Ghiorgis, or the House of St. George. Carved out of a single solid piece of pink rock, it resembles a perfectly proportioned Greek cross and is arguably the most spectacular of all the Lalibela churches. Visiting them is a must for any visitor to Ethiopia – if you time things right you could be there to experience one of several religious festivals throughout the year.

Gondar – not Lord of the Rings but just as good

Gondar (or Gonder – but never Gondor, in case you’re getting confused with the Middle Earth kingdom in The Lord of the Rings) is a city in northwestern Ethiopia. This former capital of the Ethiopian Empire is famed for its ancient churches, castles and palaces. Don’t miss the Debre Birhan Selassie – it’s small and unassuming church from the outside, but step inside and your jaw will drop to the floor – every inch of the ceiling and walls is covered with ornate painted images, from winged cherubs to Holy Trinities. The story behind this church is just as colourful: legend has it that an invading army of Sudanese Dervishes was set to burn the church to the ground – but it was saved by a swarm of bees!

The best time to visit Gondar is during Timkat, the feast of the Epiphany. It celebrates the baptism of Christ with a three-day festival starting on January 19 (or January 20 in a leap year). There’s a procession featuring a replica of the Ark of the Covenant and thousands of white-robed pilgrims, many of whom later leap into an ancient bath that was once the recreational hangout of Gondar’s medieval royals. It’s an amazing sight, and not to be missed if you can possibly make it.

The Bale Mountains

Located in southeastern Ethiopia, 400km from Addis Ababa, the Bale Mountains are an extraordinary part of Ethiopia, characterised by lush and largely unexplored forest, numerous glacial lakes and swamps, volcanic ridges and peaks and an average elevation of more than 4,000 metres above sea level on the Senetti Plateau.

This is Ethiopia’s most important biodiversity hotspot, home to some of Ethiopia’s rarest and most fascinating wildlife – many of the things that live here are found nowhere else on Earth. There’s the endemic mountain nyala, a stunning antelope, the big-headed African mole-rat, colobus monkey, tiny Bale monkey, bushbuck, lion, leopard, spotted hyena and African wild dog. The Bale Mountains are also rated one of the four top birding spots in Africa. Ethiopia has more than 860 species of bird, almost 300 of which are found in the Bale Mountains. Sixteen of these are endemic to these highlands. It’s a bird-watcher’s paradise.

But without doubt the star of the show is the Ethiopian wolf – the only wolf species found in all of Africa. Featuring thick red fur and a white belly, and looking more like a large fox or a jackal than a wolf, this is the rarest canid on the planet and Africa’s most endangered carnivore. There are only around 400 left on the planet, and most of them are found here, in Bale Mountains National Park. Spot one of these and it will be the sighting of a lifetime.

Tigray

Ethiopia’s most northerly region is Tigray. The Gheralta Mountains here will blow you away. With their sheer cliffs, surreal rock formations, towering spires and desert canyons, they wouldn’t look out of place in a Western movie – you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to an Ethiopian Arizona. But instead of ranches or saloon bars, the main attractions here are the extraordinary churches, carved into the cliff faces or built into pre-existing caves. There are about 30 of these rock-hewn Ethiopian Orthodox churches in the Gheralta Mountains, and more than 120 in Tigray in total, making this the largest collection of rock-hewn churches in the world.

Their seemingly insane locations, perched high up on remote mountains, served two purposes: to bring worshipers closer to heaven, and to hide the churches from raiding armies passing through the valleys below. It means that accessing some of these cave churches is not for the faint-hearted – but for adventure-loving travellers, that’s half the appeal. Some are easily accessible, such as the Abraha we Atsbha church. Others can require hiking, camping and steep climbs. The 6th-century monastery Debre Damo, for example, sits on a cliff that can only be reached by climbing up a 15-metre leather rope – take note, however: access is for men only.

The trickiest church to access is, ironically, probably the most popular. Abune Yemata Guh sits atop a towering sandstone pinnacle, some 2,580 metres high – with a 200-metre drop on all sides. It has a reputation as the most inaccessible, dangerous and scary church in the world, thanks to this location. No wonder it’s popular: people do love a challenge – and bragging rights! To reach the “Church in the Sky” you have to scale the cliff face, cross rickety bridges, traverse narrow ledges and do a vertical barefoot climb using shallow scoops in the sandstone as handholds (don’t worry, you can use ropes and a harness if you want). Reaching the top will take about 45 minutes – and a whole lot of effort some of them demands effort, confidence and… faith. You might want to say a prayer.

Danakil Depression

Near the border with Eritrea, in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, is a desert plain called the Danakil Depression. It’s one of the hottest, driest and lowest places on the planet, lying around 125 metres below sea level. The inhospitable climate is matched by a strange, otherworldly landscape. There are active volcanoes, a permanent – and very rare – lava lake, bubbling sulphur springs and a vast field of yellow and orange sulphuric rocks.

The Afar people call this alien world their home, eking out a living from the great salt pans, using traditional methods to mine the salt and then transport it across the country by camel caravans.

This region is often referred to as the “cradle of humanity” thanks to an extraordinary discovery made here in 1974. A team of scientists found the now-celebrated, three-million-year-old Australopithecus fossil. Known as “Lucy”, it’s one of the most important fossils ever discovered, as it’s the most ancient and complete fossil of an early human – or hominin – ever found.

This is one of the most fascinating and compelling places you can visit in Ethiopia – or, indeed, anywhere on the planet. And there’s a sense of urgency about visiting here, as the Danakil Depression will all become ocean one day. It’s located at a place where three tectonic plates join. At some stage, they’ll move so far apart that the Red Sea will spill over, and this wonderful, weird landscape will be lost forever, submerged in a new ocean. You better hurry, it’s predicted to happen in a few million years’ time.

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