Jul 3

Written by: chris
7/3/2017  RssIcon

Ethiopia – Land of Origins

Welcome to my Ethiopian journey exploring this incredible Land of Origins! Not only is Ethiopia the birthplace of humanity, based on fossil hominid finds in its deserts, but it also played a significant role in the rise of both Christianity and Islam. And importantly for me as a caffeine addict - it was also the birthplace of coffee...and still produces exquisite brews as a signature welcome to visitors all over the country. Ethiopia is a land like no other. Everything here is different and often wonderful. It is, quite simply, the most original country on the planet!   


I came to Ethiopia to record a Travel Show on location in this little known, but largest land-locked country in the world. My journey around Ethiopia in May and June of 2017 took me from the capital city of Addis Ababa on a flight north to Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Then by road to medieval Gondar, a medieval fortress city.  North again to the mighty Simien Mountains and then a flight on to Axum in the Land of the Queen of Sheba.  From here a flight south east to see the incredible rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. From the Highlands south to Arba Minch and Lake Chamo in the Great African Rift Valley. There I met the Hamer people, Dorze villagers and see the Konso Cultural Landscape. Finally, a flight back to Addis and a return to Canada.

Forget all your preconceptions about this country: it has been voted the safest country in Africa and the most welcoming country in the world! From history as ancient as the human race to landscapes that are truly sublime, to people who are fascinating in their varied cultures...and yes, warmly welcoming.

Addis Ababa – Africa’s Highest Capital

My Ethiopian journey starts here in Addis Ababa, capital of the country and a transition from the modern world to the ancient and mystical worlds of Ethiopia. It is chaotic and wonderful in equal measure. Wandering the streets is the best way to soak up the atmosphere of the place, which so delightfully different to anywhere else on earth. Addis Ababa is Africa's highest capital at over 7,500 feet above sea level at the foot of Mount Entoto in a grasslands plain. Its population of 4 million makes it the 4th biggest city in Africa, with peoples from all over the country.

Addis Ababa was founded by Emperor Menelik II, who relocated his capital to the Entoto Hills above Addis in the early 1880’s. Queen Taitu loved the steamy natural baths of Filwoha Hot Springs on the plateau below, and the site became known as Addis Ababa, meaning New Flower. Addis Ababa was chosen as the base for the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in 1958, and five years later it was made headquarters of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union. 

Ethiopia is a deeply religious country. Not Islamic as is often thought, but predominantly Christian, so my first stop in Addis was Medhane Alem Cathedral. Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is very different to other Christian sects. Due to its ancient isolation from the rest of the Christian world, it retains more of the original religion and seems to mix Judaism, Christianity and Islam in its churches and practices.

The city’s oldest church is Entoto Maryam, a traditionally painted octagon perched on the site where Emperor Menelik II was crowned in 1889. It is located in the Entoto Hills with magnificent views down to the modern city below. At 2,900 metres, the air is fresh and the gum trees provide ample shade. It is a peaceful place to wander round and contemplate the origins of Ethiopia's modern capital. Selassie (Trinity) Cathedral is where Emperor Haile Selassie was buried in a simple granite sarcophagus. The Cathedral itself is beautiful: light and airy with many bright stained glass windows.

I visited the National Museum to meet with Lucy. Lucy is the most famous fossil specimen of our remote ancestors ever found. She is a collection of fossilised bones that once made up the skeleton of a hominid from the Australopithecus afarensis species. She lived in Ethiopia 3.2 million years ago. Unearthed in 1974, the discovery was remarkably complete - 40% of her skeleton was found intact, rather than just a handful of incomplete and damaged fossils that usually make up remains of a similar age. In Ethiopia, Lucy is also known as Dinkinesh, which means "you are marvelous" in the Amharic language. To gaze on her tiny 1.1m frame in her country of discovery is awesome!

Lake Tana - The Source of the Nile

My journey in Ethiopia continues 500 kms north of Addis Ababa in the town of Bahir Dar, on the shores of Africa’s third largest lake: Lake Tana. This huge lake is the source of the Blue Nile, which contributes the greatest volume of water when it joins with the White Nile in Khartoum in the Sudan. So is the true source of the Nile. This is a big deal in exploration history! I am a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London England - the halls there are covered with the names and paintings of the great African explorers who spent – and often lost – their lives in the search for this holy grail. It was a huge thrill to go on a boat trip on Lake Tana.

Our objective was the Zege Peninsula, a forested promontory that juts out into the lake near Bahir Dar. After a 20 minute hike through the forest with monkeys swinging overhead, our guide, Mass, took us to Ura Kidane Mihret, one of the great monasteries of Lake Tana. Founded in the 14th century, this circular church was mostly built in the 16th century and its interior is full of filtered light illuminating endless colourful scenes from the bible. What makes it even more interesting is that the Ethiopian Orthodox bible has many ‘extra’ books not found in other Christian sects, so the scenes are novel and often startling.

As in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches, the holy of holies is guarded by doors and curtains, in this case part of the continuous round of cloth paintings. Inside the doors is a replica of the Arkof the Covenant - legend says that the original is kept in the northern Ethiopian town of Axum, which also formed part of our journey.

On our return trip across the lake and where the Blue Nile flows out of Lake Tana, we were able to find a pod of hippos. These huge and grumpy beasts were wallowing in the shallows close by a group of locals washing their clothes on the bank. Which is a little worrying when you consider that hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other wild animal in Africa.

In Bahir Dar itself we attended the festivities celebrating a public holiday in Ethiopia and wandered the famous Saturday Market – both wonderful ways of meeting the local people.


Gondar - Ethiopia’s Camelot

A three hour drive further north in Ethiopia is the legendary city of Gondar.  Gondar is in a time warp. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where medieval Ethiopia comes vividly to life in a fascinating collection of six imposing castles, three churches and a royal compound built by the Emperor Fasil in the 1660’s. Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from 1636 until the mid-nineteenth century and the architecture is a strange mix of European, Indian and traditional Ethiopian styles. It has been called the Camelot of Africa, for they look as though they have come from the time of King Arthur. Yet here they stand in the in the heart of the Ethiopian Highlands and these are truly Ethiopian creations, evocative of the kingly dynasties that ruled here in the 1600’s to 1800’s.

Also in Gondar are the most perfectly preserved church paintings in the country. The church of Debre Birhan Selassie is the only church here that survived waves of attackers - the last were chased away by a miraculous swarm of bees! It lies nestled within a wall with 12 towers, but its real glory lies inside…The church of Debre Birhan Selassie features over 80 cherubic faces that are as fresh today as when they were painted centuries ago – they are the most famous examples of ecclesiastic paintings in Ethiopia.

Simien Mountains – The Roof of Africa

This was a special day for me – a journey to the Simien Mountain National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and scenic wonder of the world. The bedrock of the Simien Mountains is a vast and ancient basaltic dome moulded into a series of jagged pinnacles and buttresses by glacial activity and rainfall. The landscape is stupendous: 12 peaks soar to over 4,000 metres and mighty cliffs plunge 1,500 metres into the dark abyss. It is every bit as inspiring as the Grand Canyon. There is wildlife to match these superlatives. Along with leopards, hyenas and jackals, there are three endemic species found nowhere else: the Ethiopian Wolf, the Walia Ibex and the wonderful Gelada Baboon. We stopped for lunch in the mountain mists at Africa’s highest hotel: Simien Lodge at 3,260 metres. Then our local armed scouts took us on a hike across montane meadows strewn with wild flowers and along the edge of precipices that seemed to plummet down forever. 

My wonder moment came when my guides located a huge troop of Gelada Baboons high up at 3,500 metres beside the edge of a cliff. I was able to sit and observe for hours from just a few feet away. Mothers with babies clinging to their back, their tails entwined as a safety harness. Teenagers rough-housing with each other right next to terrifying drops. And adults of both sexes sitting up and watching me, watching them, with equal interest; they displayed their bright red chest patches that have earned them their nickname of the ‘Bleeding Heart Baboon’. They are the world’s only ground-dwelling, grass-eating primate and it was a privilege to be a part of this amazing wildlife experience. 

Axum – Mysteries of the Past

I have journeyed almost as far north in Ethiopia as it's possible to go, to Axum in Tigre province on the border with Eritrea and a thousand kilometres north of Addis Ababa. It's a time trip through the country's deepest recorded history. Axum is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in sub-Saharan Africa and it’s another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, around 1,000 BC the legendary Queen of Sheba had her palace. Her son, Menelik I, brought the Ark of the Covenant here from Jerusalem and it still supposedly resides here, hidden away. I visited the tomb of King Basen, who is better known to us as King Balthazar, one of the Three Wise Men who attended the Nativity.

The Axum Empire continued to expand in the following centuries and was one of the world's great empires of its time. The Axum Kings boasted of their greatness like the Egyptian Pharaohs - by building great monuments for their transition into the afterlife. But rather than pyramids, they erected the largest stone obelisks the world has ever seen. Called stelae, these staircases to the heavens stand sentinel-like in the centre of Axum to this day. There are over 120 of these great monuments, some over 25 metres high.

Lalibela – World Wonder

Lalibela. Have you heard of it? Perhaps not. But you will be hearing much more about it over the coming years, as this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World and is on a par with Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and Petra.

Almost a thousand years ago, the saintly King Lalibela built a second Jerusalem here in the heart of Ethiopia. He envisioned a safe place for Christian pilgrims who could no longer go to Jerusalem, which had fallen under Muslim control. A rich complex of 11 churches was built, but not like any others in the world. For these beautiful structures were built down into the mountain, hewn from the solid rock.

Hand-carved into the rock, flake by painstaking flake (a process that would have required around 40,000 man-years to complete) Lalibela is the joyous triumph of an Ethiopian church-excavating tradition which dates back to the arrival of Christianity circa 350 AD. Many of Lalibela’s churches are subterranean monoliths, created in two stages. First, a quadrangle of trenches up to 15 metres deep would be hand-cut into a horizontal rock surface. Only then could the artisans commence work on the actual church, which was excavated into a massive freestanding central block enclosed by the artificial trenches.

The church of Bete Medhane Alem, set in a vast subterranean courtyard, is the world's largest rock-hewn excavation, supported by 36 internal and 36 external pillars. Inside, it has a Cathedral like immensity and it's humbling to know that one is standing inside a mountain in this holy place. The most iconic church at Lalibela, Bete Giyorgis is a free-standing monolith carved in the shape of a cross and dedicated to its namesake Saint George. The inside of this church is simple but powerful and there were a number of pilgrims sitting in the half-light of its interior. Unlike Machu Picchu and Petra, Lalibela has never ceased to be an active place of pilgrimage, which adds a beautiful, living historical context to this extraordinary place. I am still bewitched by my time there...

The Great African Rift Valley

From the wonders of Lalibela I headed south via Addis Ababa to Arba Minch, a town perched on a ledge above the Great African Rift Valley. This great tear in the Earth’s crust cuts through Ethiopia from the Danakil Depression in the northeast to the eight rift lakes in the south of the country…and on through Kenya all the way to Mozambique. I am staying in the aptly named Paradise Lodge where the rooms are in thatched roundhouses and the views over the Rift Valley to Lakes Chamo and Abaya are breathtaking. The Lodge even has a resident warthog that keeps the grass under control!

The Great African Rift Valley is an amazing mix of great scenery, age-old cultures and exciting wildlife. I went on a boat ride on Lake Chamo which is part of the Nech Sar National Park and is famed for its crocodiles and hippo populations. The crocs in Lake Chamo are famous for their size and we saw a dozen of them in the water and on the banks of the lake. Some were close to the local fisherman who were up to their waist in the waters and seemingly oblivious to any danger.

We were accompanied, as we have been throughout our journey in Ethiopia, by a film crew from EBC: Ethiopia's national TV company. And there was plenty to film on our boat trip: huge crocodiles, fighting hippos, mighty eagles and other birdlife...and the most glorious African sunset imaginable...

In the evening, I went for a run on a forest trail in the National Park and found myself in the company of a troop of Anubis baboons – truly novel running companions!

Peoples of the Rift – The Dorze

On the top of the Rift Valley mountainous walls above Arba Minch are a people whose lives remain largely unaffected by the outside world. Here in the swirling mists at 2,500 metres, the Dorze people have lived for at least half a millennium growing crops such a false banana and tropical fruits. The Dorze people live in bamboo and thatch huts that are 30-40 feet high and shaped to resemble elephant heads. The interiors are surprisingly spacious and there is room for multiple family members and their livestock. There is a large central fireplace and sleeping areas around the edge of the hut.

The Dorze are famous throughout Ethiopia for their skilled cotton weaving, so we visited a Dorze weaving cooperative where men and women weavers were producing colourful designs. Naturally, I couldn't resist purchasing one.... I spent time with Mekonen, a local Dorze guide, who showed me his home, his friends and introduced me to the very powerful local hooch! This was followed by a village dance, with all the kids of the village participating. It was a wonderful day in this cool, misty, otherworldly place.

Peoples of the Rift – The Konso

The second of the peoples of southern Ethiopia that we visited were the Konso. They live in fortified hilltop villages, surrounded by multiple concentric stone walls. Together with their stone terraced fields and their ceremonial structures, this region is Ethiopia's fifth UNESCO World Heritage Site that we have visited on this trip. I spent a wondrous afternoon being guided around Gamole, one of several villages in the Rift Valley, by Kasare, a local Konso man.

It was like a massive stone wall maze, as narrow alleys lead around the hilltop, through massive defensive walls, with doorways off to individual family compounds like the one shown here. Sometimes the high stone walls opened up into a public square where tribal justice is determined and every 18 years a generation pole is erected to celebrate the initiation of the next generation. Gamole has 43 such poles, Kasare explained, indicating that is nearly 800 years old! In some villages, the exploits of a celebrated generation is commemorated by the erection of a stone obelisk, a custom that makes Konso one of the world’s last existing megalithic cultures.

Peoples of the Rift – The Hamer

I’ve come to the end of the road at Turmi. It’s a village close to the Kenya border in the southern Rift Valley. This is the Omo Region where 16 distinct ethnic cultures still live lives little changed over time. I have come to a village of the Hamer People; the round thatched huts are dotted across a dry, desert landscape of occasional acacia trees and dry watercourses. The huts are ringed by stick fences, within which goats are milked and toddlers are cared for; the precious cattle that are a measure of a family’s wealth are also driven inside the walls as evening falls. They wear their hair in ocred braids, which highlights their striking faces. The women are bare-breasted but with many adornments of copper and cowrie shell beads around their neck and arms. The children wear only beaming smiles. In one hut I met a Hamer bride who sits in her hut for six months as part of the ritual. She is sheathed in butter as part of her adornment. 

We have come to this extended family compound to experience their famous dance ritual called the Evengadi – and it is a riveting display. As the sun dipped behind a bank of clouds, the clapping and chanting began and the young men of the village gathered into a semicircle. The unmarried young women were at the open end of the semicircle and then the young men took turns to step into the circle and jump high in the air, feet together, as though they had springs in their heels. The young women refused to be impressed and so the dance continued until eventually the young ladies showed some interest and rushed forwards into the circle. There was much giggling and high spirits and clearly everyone enjoyed the dance. Even the young boys were allowed to participate at the end.

As the sun set over the plains of Africa and the light dimmed, it was time to leave this window into another world. My last picture was of a young Hamer girl and her baby brother standing in the twilight, solemnly, nobly, observing me as intently as I was observing her…and then we simultaneously broke into huge smiles and a bridge was briefly built between our two very different worlds.

Planning Your Trip 

To start planning your trip, visit www.Ethiopia.travel   

For direct flights from Toronto to Addis Ababa, go to www.EthiopianAirlines.ca    

To organize tours within Ethiopia, try these two organizations:

Ethiopian Tour Operators Association (ETOA) www.ethiopiantourassociation.com

Society of Tour Operators in Addis Ababa (STOA) www.stoa-ethiopia.org

Canadians need a valid Passport and a Visa; you can purchase your Visa on arrival at Addis Ababa Airport quite easily ($55), or you may shortly be able to purchase it online.

The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr; the current exchange rate is 17 birr to the Canadian dollar (July 2017). I found it easiest to obtain birr from ATM’s which are now plentiful.

Health: Ethiopia is a safe and reasonably healthy country provided you take a few common sense precautions. Ensure your inoculations for typhoid, tetanus, polio and hepatitis A are up to date, mainly if you are traveling out of the capital. Anti-malarial prophylactics should be taken if you’ll be visiting low-lying moist regions such as the southern Rift Valley and South Omo. There is also a small risk of malaria, especially during the rainy season, at mid-altitude sites such as Bahir Dar and Harar.

I have two strong recommendations for guidebooks in Ethiopia:

Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition, 2015). Clocking in at 656 pages, the 7th edition of this long serving guidebook provides the most comprehensive coverage of tourist sites, accommodation and other facilities on the market. Available as a printed book or ebook.

Lonely Planet’s Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland (5th edition, 2013). Available as a printed book or ebook and with a new edition expected very shortly.

I also very much enjoyed the account of one of my favourite travel writers, Dervla Murphy, of her adventurous and insightful journey on foot across the Highlands in the 1960’s called “In Ethiopia With a Mule” – still widely available as a reprint.


I would recommend these accommodations I experienced on this trip:

Addis Ababa: Golden Tulip www.goldentulipaddisababa.com

Bahir Dar: Blue Nile Resort Hotel: www.bluenileresorthotels.com

Gondar: Goha Hotel www.gohahotel.com

Simien: Simien Lodge www.simiens.com

Axum: Brana Hotel www.branahotel.com

Lalibela: Mountain View Hotel www.mountainview-hotel.com

Bahir Dar: Paradise Lodge www.paradiselodgeethiopia.com

Turmi: Turmi Lodge www.traveloethiopia.com/hotels/turmi-lodge


My last day in Ethiopia was a long day of travel from a tribal village in the Rift Valley back to Arba Minch and a flight north to Addis Ababa to connect with my direct flight on Ethiopian Airways to Toronto. From a simple community living in timeless harmony with nature, to a 21st century metropolis in the space of few hours. Such is the bewildering miracle of modern travel. As I assimilate all the wonderful sights and experiences of my two week journey in Ethiopia, it is the people of the Land of Origins that are the most remarkable aspect of Ethiopia. I am thankful for their unique hospitality, the warmth of which I know will bring me back to this wonderful country. In particular, I would like to thank Welde Berhe from Ethiopia Tourism who accompanied me on this trip as well as Birhan Abata at Ethiopian Airlines in Canada.


Copyright ©2017 Chris Robinson

Tags: Africa

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