“They told us pilgrims still come to Aksum looking for the Ark of the Covenant. We didn’t find it but prefer this setting to that secret government warehouse.”
The only African country never to be colonized by Europeans has a complex and fascinating history. Yet when most Westerners think of Ethiopia, what come to mind are images of ravaging famine and well-intentioned relief concerts. The truth is that this vast country may be materially poor, but it’s fantastically rich in culture, stunning scenery and friendly, independent people. Just the place for an unexpected bespoke adventure.
From the capital Addis Ababa – where you can get a coffee that would put the baristas of Milan to shame – a natural first stop would be to travel north to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, center of the Zagwe dynasty until the mid-13th century, to witness Christian ceremonies that have not altered in a thousand years. The town’s setting is dramatic in itself, with circular stone houses huddled on steep slopes some 8,600ft above sea level.
Nearby Aksum was once the site of a thriving civilization but these days is best approached with a certain reconstructive imagination. Thanks to the lethal 16th-century raids of Ahmed Gragn you’ll see what are now ruined palaces, abandoned tombs and towering stelae.
To really get off the beaten track, we can take you hiking deep into the spectacular Simien Mountains, where at least a dozen peaks exceed 13,000ft. Then there’s Bale Mountains National Park too, where you can take in spectacular alpine views whilst spotting an array of mountain wildlife, including Ethiopian wolves.
Yet as with all African countries, it’s the Ethiopian people who’ll likely impress you most. You could choose to spend time with the tribes of the South Omo Valley, whose lives have not changed in hundreds of years. The only way to reach some communities is either by rafting downriver for several days – an adventure in itself – or flying in by helicopter. If ancient churches are your thing, we can arrange to visit as many as you’d like with a renowned anthropologist and historian to explain the nuances. Or, for a complete change of pace, how would you like to hone your running technique with members of the Ethiopian Olympic squad?
Whatever facets of Ethiopia intrigue you most, the underlying message from its people is that they don’t want anyone’s pity. They’re delighted to have you discover their country’s extraordinary beauty and hope you’ll pass on the word that there’s infinitely more to this corner of Africa than what may appear on a five-minute news bulletin.
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