Travel Diaries

Victoriaโ€™s First Visit to Ethiopia

June 27, 2018 Facebook Page Twitter Page
So many places here were quite special, but what makes it memorable is the people.
So many places here were quite special, but what makes it memorable is the people.

Hi Victoria!

Tell us a little about yourself and your trip to Ethiopia.

I'm a keen traveller in my late 30s, an aspiring travel photographer and always looking for an excuse to go visit a new country. I currently live in Brussels where great international minds come together, but I'm of French, British and Austria origin. I'm always curious about learning and experiencing different cultures and have a particular attachment to Africa.

I went to Ethiopia in October 2017. I had been dreaming about that country for a long time, even though I can't quite explain why. I guess it's a country that's still a bit off the beaten track for Africa and in many ways quite different to what people might imagine. When I started telling my friends I was going there, they all imagined deserts, some wildlife and famine (remembering the crisis in the 80s). But in fact Ethiopia is a very diverse and vast country, with some of the highest mountains in Africa, Ras Dashen is 4550m high, and a lot of places including the capital Addis Ababa are already more than 2000m above sea level.

The country has a rich history, strong connections with Orthodox Christianity (around 70% of the population), lots of beautifully painted churches, like the ones on Lake Tana, and some incredible rock hewn churches. The most famous one is St George, in Lalibela, one of 11 churches each carved out of a single volcanic rock and dating back to the 12th century. All the churches are still in use, with priests and deacons practicing every day and locals coming to pray for a miracle on a regular basis.

An interesting fact about the country is that it was never colonized. It was occupied for a short amount of time by the Italians, but they proudly stood their ground and managed to fight them off. This explains partly why they are so open and welcoming to visitors. A visit to Ethiopia wouldn't be the same without sampling their food. The injera is like a sourdough pancake that's the base for everything else they eat. On top you can have a selection of vegetables cooked in berbere chilli spice, or chicken or beef or lamb, or shiro, which is a kind of sauce made from chickpea flour. I love their food and it's great if you're a vegetarian too.

I had one month but I wanted to travel slowly, taking my time to get from one place to the other and being open to chance encounters and following my intuition. I chose to do only the northern route, which is said to be easier to get around, especially if you're backpacking rather than with a guide and private car.

I started out in Addis Ababa and stayed about 4 days there. The town, like most big cities, is hectic, lots of traffic, lots of pollution and a lot of construction work being done, mainly by Chinese developers. But it's also an interesting place. It's worth paying a visit to our ancestor Lucy in the National Museum of Ethiopia and discover some of the famous Ethiopian artists, the Red Terror Museum will give you an insight of the military dictatorship during the 70s and the mass killings that occurred during that period. The usual precautions should be taken, watch your bag, don't put your phone or wallet somewhere where it can be easily pick-pocketed and sadly don't trust friendly strangers. They are very good hustlers and can spin you stories that you might end up regretting if you believed them. But this is mainly applicable to the capital.

Most people head straight to Bahir Dar from Addis, but I wanted to experience Bati Market, which is the largest livestock market in the North and takes place every Monday.

So this means taking a different route via Kombolcha, a small town on the way to Dessie, which isn't that exciting other than people watching, one of my favorite activities when traveling. At the market you'll see goats and sheep being weighed, donkeys carrying wood or heavy bags and then you see the cattle with their huge horns and the camels, one of their most precious possessions as one of them can be sold for several hundred Euros. People travel from very far to come to the market, so you're likely to see Afar, Tigray, Amhara and Oromo people all doing business together.

After spending a night in Dessie and freaking out a bit when I saw a hyena skip across the road early in the morning I took the local bus to Lalibela. All the hustle and bustle at the bus station can be a bit intimidating at first, you don't really know where you're going and have to trust that they'll put you on the right bus, which thankfully was the case. The ride is bumpy, long but also very beautiful.

Lalibela is definitely impressive. The rock hewn churches are all incredible and you sometimes feel like you're Indiana Jones, going through dark tunnels and narrow passageways to reach the next church. But it's not just about the churches, you can do treks in the surrounding mountains or you can go birdwatching (Look up Mas, Bird Watching in Lalibela) as there are so many beautiful colourful birds, it's worth it. If you're there on a Saturday then you can also experience the market.

From Lalibela, I flew to Gondar to arrange the trek in the Simiens. The experience was amazing, despite the cold, the rain and the lack of oxygen, I would love to go back there. You can read more about it further down. In Gondar, don't miss the Castle ruins, if you didn't know any better you could believe it was somewhere in Europe. A fun thing to do in Gondar and in Bahir Dar is go to a restaurant where they play live music and do traditional dances. This isn't some touristy show, a lot of locals love going there and eventually join in with the dancing when the dancers come down from stage and pick out a few people from the crowd to dance with. It's a great experience and you get to see some rather original dances.

After Gondar, I headed to Bahir Dar. People go there to visit the churches on Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls. Both can be arranged for the same day and beware that you'll be charged an entrance fee for each church you want to see and some are forbidden to women. The market in Bahir Dar is a great place to shop for souvenirs, like the traditional coffee jugs, or spices.

I highly recommend you organise a visit to Awra Amba, an inspiring community that lives about 2h outside of Bahir Dar. It's easy to get there by minibus and you can do a guided tour of the place once you're there. This community lives according to certain principles, women and men are considered equal, religion and politics don't dictate how they live and they support people in need, a true example of sociocracy. The place is peaceful and you can sleep there if you want to as well.

My final stop, before heading back to Addis, was Harar. Harar is the fourth Holy City of Islam, its buildings have green, blue, pink walls and the ladies all wear colourful vibrant colours that brighten up the streets. Some famous Western people have stayed there over the last few centuries, including French poet Arthur Rimbaud and Richard Burton the explorer. Being so close to Djibouti a lot of people speak French and their taxis are old Peugeot, which is funny to see. It's also famous for the hyena feeding. Every evening after sundown, a man comes to feed the hyenas with meat and big hunks of bone. This has been going on for several decades and it's said that ever since they've started feeding them, they no longer attack their livestock or people. It's a become a bit of a tourist trap as you can sit down next to the man and he'll give you a miniature stick with some meat on it and a Hyena will come snatched it from you. It's a bit nerve-wracking because they're still wild animals and they have extremely powerful jaws, but thankfully I still have all my fingers.

I've barely scratched the surface of this vast and diverse country and would love to go back and discover some more areas. I was lucky to go in October, which is just after the rainy season, it was still quite green everywhere and the waterfalls were still pretty strong.

Wow! you did a lot! What was the most memorable experience you had during your trip?

Hard to say of course. So many places were quite special. But what makes it memorable is the people. On the bus from Addis Ababa to Kombolcha I met a very friendly woman, Meaza, who was on her way to visit family in Dessie. She shared her lunch with me during the short break and we chatted for a bit. She works as marketing director for Total and we met up again when I was back in Addis. Walking around in Kombolcha, a small town in the north, locals kept on waving me over inviting to join them for buna (coffee), or a snack... whatever you want you are their guest and they will insist on inviting you. In Dessie, I needed help booking my bus ticket to Lalibela. A guy in the lobby of the hotel, Zach, spoke good English and accompanied me to the bus station to get my ticket and helped arrange a tuck tuck to pick me up before sunrise the next day. On that very bus to Lalibela, I was sat next to a deacon, Gebriel Myriam, who looked out for me during the long ride and I made friends with a boy, Tesfa, who wants to become an artist. He showed me some of his paintings when I was in Lalibela and the kid's got talent!! One of the guides I met in Lalibela, Mas, has dreams of setting up a community library in his villageโ€ฆ

Of course trekking in the Simien Mountains (see next question) was pretty amazing as I'd never achieved anything like that before.

What was your favorite natural place there?

Ethiopia has some amazing nature and the altitude makes it quite green in many parts of the country. A lot of people insist on going to the Dallol, which is this surreal volcanic, sulphur land near the Eritrean border, I hear it's pretty amazing. But budget wise I had to make a choice and chose the mountains instead.

I did a 4 day trek in the Simien Mountains, that I arranged from Gondar. It was fantastic. The trek takes you through the Afro-Alpine vegetation and immediately you're hit with the fragrant smell of thyme, which is a bit unexpected at first. Some of the plants are also endemic to the area and the higher you go the less trees you have because of the altitude. One thing you're sure to come across are the fantastic gelada baboons with their thick fur and big fangs even though they only eat grass and leaves. They're quite peaceful animals and don't mind the humans walking near them, but I'm glad they're not so used to humans that they would expect food or become aggressive. I was also lucky to see the very rare Ethiopian Wolf (sometimes called fox) with only a few hundred left in the whole country.

The views are breathtaking, everywhere you look, from the sheer drop at the edge of the cliffs to one of the highest waterfalls in the world (I think...), to the fields of wheat grown by the locals. The trek can be tough sometimes but mostly because of the altitude and lack of oxygen. So when you manage to get to more than 4000m you can be pretty proud of your achievement.

Do you have recommendations for those interested in traveling to Ethiopia?

Just go! And don't miss Lalibela and the Simien Mountains if you get a chance, guides are easy to find once you're there, but happy to recommend a few if you want. Mas Birdman (search him on Facebook), is a guide based in Lalibela, but can arrange other activities for you as well.

Peter manages a tour company based in Gondar. I did the treck in the Simien Mountains with him, but he can also arrange the Danakil Depression. Someone I know went with his company and was happy with it. I don't know how much he paid. But the advantage is that you'll be able to join a larger group and therefore make it cheaper. You can contact him on: +251 91 872 1923 or email peterada@yahoo.com

Nati runs Manuhie Backpacker in Bahir Dar. His place is quite good for "cheap" Ethiopian standards. He has contacts everywhere and can definitely help you arrange most of your trip. You can reach him by phone +251 91 825 3484 or via his Facebook page Manuhie Backpackers Lodge

What are some tips you can give to other travelers looking to go to Ethiopia?

Like anywhere, do your research before. It's a beautiful country, most people are very friendly and it's very safe, but you need to be informed too:

  • Make sure you register with your embassy so they are aware you're in the country.
  • If you want to get a local sim card, plan a few hours to get to the local telecom shop as you'll need to "register" your foreign phone before you're able to use the card. It won't work otherwise.
  • Take some warm clothes and good walking shoes, especially if you're planning on doing the Simien mountains, it gets extremely cold at night.
  • If you fly to Ethiopia with Ethiopian Airlines, your internal flights will be a lot cheaper, which is great especially if you don't have too much time and want to fly to certain places.
  • Pack light, you don't need that many clothes when you're backpacking around, most hotels can wash your clothes for you.
  • Speak to other travellers and ask for recommendations, such as what tour groups they used and how much they paid. That will give you a rough estimate of what's an acceptable price when negotiating.
  • Bring a selection of dollars and Euros/pounds to pay for the big excursions or entry fees (Lalibela, the trekking etc...). Euro is becoming more and more popular as it's currently stronger than the dollar.

When traveling, did you take any special steps to have a positive impact on the community?

Already travelling by myself, using local guides and staying in local guest houses had a positive impact on the community. But of course there's a lot more that can be done. Just be well informed if you want to do some volunteering.

What other countries have you visited in Africa?

I've been to Namibia and Cape Town, Madagascar and Tanzania. I plan to visit many more!!!

Thank you Victoria!

Check out her itinerary here

Make sure to follow Victoria for more about her travels!
Instagram: @dreamzaah_be
Blog (work in progress)

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