Many people may wonder how one can get the idea to go to Ethiopia for
vacation. The country has a big image problem since most people
associate it with famine. We all saw the images on
the television in the 80's of children with large stomachs from starvation.
In fact, most of Ethiopia is quite fertile land. Most of it is highland that
consists of volcanic rocks. Only in the lowlands in the eastern parts of the
country draught can sometimes be a problem.
Ethiopia has a lot to offer. It is not the traditional tourist place and
you shouldn't go there for the nightclubs or beaches, but the nature, an old
culture and lots of different tribes in the south make the country a really
interesting place to visit. Regarding nature the scenery can be grand and
the country has lots of endemic spieces, especially birds. Most of the large
mammals are however virtually extinct after the different civil wars where
they were shot for food and money.
I visited the Addis Abeba, the south-southwest of the country down to the
lower Omo region and north to Gondar, Simien mountains and Lalibela. There
are other places in Ethiopia than these that I am sure are worth a visit.
The ancient town of Axum, the old muslim culture in and around Harare, Bale
mountains and the nomads in the desert in the Afar region are some of those
regions that I imagine would be really interesting to see.
Below are maps of Ethiopia. Click the maps for a larger image.
Ethiopia with major towns and roads
Ethiopia and division into regions
I went to Ethiopia with a group travel arranged by Swedish
travel agents Läs&Res. We had
participated in their group travels before during the Peru trip, and we had
been very pleased with them. Therefore we decided to give them another
chance. Also, Ethiopia is not a country where you can easily backpack on
your own. I do recommend that you get a trip arranged by a travel agency
that is familiar with the country.
Before taking a photo of a person or his home you should
always negiciate a price. This should be 1 Birr per photo in most of the
country, with 2 Birr in some places. Do not start taking photos without
having agreed on a price, since that will make people upset. Don't forget to
get lots of 1 Birr notes when you exchange your currency ($US is the best to
Addis Abeba means New Flower. It was founded towards the end of the 19th
century and is the (so far) last of a number of capitals of Ethiopia and its
We arrived from Sweden on the 5th of November 2004 and later returned
twice to the city. At first I didn't think much of it - it doesn't have an
city center that is representative of its size (poulation around 5 million)
and much of it does look a bit shady. Every time that we returned to the
city however I liked it better.
Ethiopia may have been the cradle of man. At least the area where the
most hominids have been found is the Rift Vally, whcih streaches from
Ethiopia south through Kenya and onwards. It is also the country where one
of the most famous hominids - Lucy - was found in 1974. Her name came from
the Beatles song "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" that was frequently played
at the archeological site. Estimated to be around 3.2 million years old,
Lucy was a sensation.
Lucy can be seen today at the National Museum in central Addis. It is an
almost mandatory visit. The rest of that museum is however not as
interesting. A better choice for getting to know the ethiopian cultures is
the Ethnological (Ethnographical) Museum. It is located inside the
university area in contains lots of interesting exhibitions and objects. It
is better organised and provides more information than the National
Museum.It is located inside the old palace of Haile Selassie, emperor of
Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974. The university area in itself is an oasis
with its green plants, its beautiful layouts and buildings and its lack of
The terrace outside hotel Taitu where we stayed when in
The Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis
Addis has everything that you can possibly want if you just
look around. Gold and silver is quite cheap here and there are lots of shop
for it near the De Gaulle square.
After spending a day sightseing in Addis, it was time to move on. The
next stop was Awasa, the largest city in the south of Ethiopia. It was about
6 hours drive to get there with a mini-bus even though the road was a very
good tarmac road. That was the only good road we were going to see in
The trip took us though Rift Valley and some of the Rift Valley lakes.
Awasa itself is built next to lake Awasa, another Rift Valley lake.
View of Lake Awassa
In Awasa one really started to see that Ethiopia is the land
of contrasts. The streets were muddy, the houses were build from mud and so
on, and yet the signs on the front of the houses said "Fuji one hour photos"
or "Computer Center" . This contrast was to become even more evident later
when we came to Arba Minch.
Injera with some kinds of wot (stew).
In Awassa I tried for the first time traditional Ethiopian
food. The fermented bread Injera is the base of this, usually complemented
with one or several kinds of wot - stew. Ethiopian food is usually spicy and
can be very tasty. In Awassa you could also have very good fish, fresh from
Fish market in Awassa
Pelicans at the fish market
Beautiful flower outside Wabe Shebele hotel 1 in Awassa
Nechisar National Park and Arba Minch
Already the next day we continued towards the south. Our next target was
the Nechisar National Park outside the town of Arba Minch. Now we had
switched to Toyota Land Cruisers, which was good. The roads were from now on
only gravel, and were in some places in very bad condition.
On the way towards Arba Minch we passed the land of several different
tribes. They all had their own distinctions, not the least in the way they
built their huts.
Beautiful hut on the way between Awassa and Arba Minch
Zebras in the Nechisar National Park
The next two nights we would camp in the Nechisar National
Park just outside of Arba Minch. The name of the park means "White Grass" in
Amharic. It is a fitting name, since some of the park contains savanna plans
with quite white grass. On these plains you can se Zebra, greater Kudo and
some other spieces. Unfortunatly big mammals are very rare in Ethiopa
nowadays, and you wouldn't go to the country mainly for them. If you haven't
been to South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania or similar it can still be interesting
to take some time to watch animals.The camping site of the park can also be
used as a base for exporing the area around Arba Minch, as an alternative to
the hotels in town.
North of Arba Minch and Nechisar in the mountains is the
little town of Chencha, home of the Dorze people. The Dorze are famous for
weaving very high quality fabric as well as for their big behive huts. The
road there is very bad and you really need a proper 4WD car. The visit is
Beehive hut of the Dorze people and an old man weaving
We also stayed one night in Arba Minch hotel in town. The
place was very simple but ok. There are other hotels with a higher standard
as well - Bekele Mola and others.
Arba Minch and Nechisar are both situated by two lakes -
Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo. On the latter it is possible to go on a boat trip
and see chrocodiles and hippos up close. If you haven't seen these animals
up close before I can be recommend it.
Key Afer, Jinka and the Mursi
When we left Arba Minch we countinued to head south. We passed the towns
of Konso, Weito (situated on low altitude and very hot!) and Key Afer on the
way to Jinka.
Beehives hung from a tree.
In Key After we stopped in order to take a look at the
market. It can really be recommended - it is interesting to see all of the
people that have gathered to sell and buy stuff. On markets people are also
have a purpose of being there and begging is not so much of a problem. In
Key Afer most people belong to the Benna and Thema tribes.
Left: Me and a young boy in the market in Key After
Right: Two girls in the market.
Scenery on the way to Jinka
Jinka is the base for exploring the Mango National Park and
visiting the Mursi tribe. The Mursi are known for the lip plates that the
women use. That tradition is quite special and the Mursi are interesting to
see. Unfortunately, the Mursi are also very pushy, something that makes the
experience of meeting them less positive.
Left: Mursi women. See the lip plate!
Right: Mursi men in traditional body paint
You have to drive through some of the Mago National Park in
order to get the the Mursi. We didn't see much animals there, and it seems
that is normal. We couldn't get down to the river near the park headquarters
because the road was too muddy after a rain the day before. We heard that
one group had been stuck in a car there all night before someone came and
could pull them out. You have to be careful!
Turmi and the Hamer
Next we headed further south towards Turmi, where the Hamer people live.
On the way we stopped at the market in Arbore, where the Arbore and Wasa
people were busy selling and buying things.
Southern woman with child
Crossing the river in order to get to Turmi.
In and around Turmi we met people from the Hamer tribe. I
really liked the Hamer - they were pretty relaxed and very friendly. We
stayed in a camp site just by the river seen above. It was nice and shady.
Women from the Hamer people
Many of the Hamer women had coloured their hair copper red
using some special mixture containing oil and butter ochre. It looked very
greasy! I bought two of the traditional wooden pillows pillows - one from
some people near the camp site and one at the market in Turmi. Interesting
and well make souveniers to have!
From Turmi we made a one-day tour to visit the Karo and the
Dasanech (Geleb) tribes. We started to drive at extremely bad gravel roads
that soon turned to no roads at all. Since I work with AWD systems, it would
be interesting to have that area as a test site if it wasn't so difficult to
Left: Karo woman
Right: Geleb man
During the visit to the Geleb near Omorate (very close to
the Kenyan border) we could se that they were really very very poor. The
other tribes like the Hamer at Turmi were not exactly wealthy, but you could
see that they coped and that they were fit. The Galeb on the other hand were
quite skinny and their huts looked as if they were made from whatever
garbage they could find.
Our camp site outside Turmi near the river
On the monday (15th of November) it was market day in Turmi.
We walked from the camp site in to Turmi. It was about half an hours walk
and it was very interesting since we shared the road with all of the Hamer
people that were on their way to the market to buy and sell. The market
itself was interesting to see. That day some aid from the US and EU was also
distributed to the families in Turmi.
After having visited the marked we prepared to leave Turmi
and start heading back towards Addis, spending nights in Konso and Ziway on
the way. Suddenly our cook jumped three meters up into the air. He had found
a cobra lying in the tarpaulin that they had put around the cooking place!
The cobra was chased away by the local youngsters by throwing stones at it.
Luckily noone was bitten!
This is what the road north from Konso and Arba Minch
looked like most of the time - lots and lots of cattle, goats and people!
After having returned to Addis we only stayed one night before we
continued by air to Gondar. Gondar is a previous capital of Ethiopia (or
Abyssinia). It was made capital by emperor Fasiladas in 1636. The population
is about 110 000, but it feels smaller. The royal enclosure contains old
castles build during the time that Gondar was capital.
King Fasiladas palace in the Gondar royal enclosure
Another interesting place to visit is the Debre Berhan
Selassie church just outside of Gondar. It is probably the most famous
church in the country. The entire ceiling is covered with faces of angels
and also the walls are covered with paintings.
Church of Debre Birhan Selassie - "Trinity of the Place of
We spent 6 nights in the Simien mountains area, 2 of which were in
villages in the lowlands. The area is known for the possibilities for
trecking. It also contains some interesting animals. The Simien wolf
(sometimes called Ethiopian wold or Simien fox) can be seen if you are lucky
but is more common in Bale mountains. The gelada baboons are common here and
we also saw the walia ibex. All three are endemic to Ethiopia, and the walia
ibex to the Simien only with an estimated numer of only around 500 .
In order to get to the Simiens you have to go north from Gondar for about
3-4 hours to a little town called Debark. The read there used to be a good
tarmac road but is now in terrible condition. Ackording to our travel leader
Fasil the road was destroyed when tanks were driven on it towards the front
From Debark it is another two hours to get to Sankaber camp, where we
stayed the first night. It was very cold and windy, and the altitude could
The next day we walked to Geech camp. At first an easy walk along the
enscarpment but later much more difficult. The latter was in my case mainly
due to the reaction to the altitude - I seemed to have a harder time than
the others getting enough oxygen. Before we got to Geech, I was really
Left: Gelada Baboon on the edge of the escarpment
Right: Naga, one of the persons helping us with mules, luggage and more
Geech was at an even higher altitude at around 3500 m. The
nights were even colder with frost in the mornings. We heard that a few days
after we left the camp, there was snow in the morning! The camp is also
situated so that the wind gets the oppertunity to gather strength before
blowing into the camp. Bring very warm clothes and a warm sleeping bag!
We stayed one day around Geech, and most of the people in
the group went to see three viewpoints. They were unfortunatly not very
lucky with respect to the weather, and the clouds were very low that day. I
and two others stayed closed to the camp and visited the Geech village.
The next day we walked to Chenek camp. When I woke up I had
a migrain attack, and had to stay behind. Luckily, it was not one of the
worse attacks that I've had and I could follow after a few hours. The guide
had left one guy, Naga, behind so he walked with me all the way to Chenek.
It was a nice feeling to be just him and me walking through the countyside
in the mountains with no other westeners and very few people at all around.
Sunset at the Geech camp in the Simien mountains
After the night at Checnek, the next two nights we camped in
villages in the lowlands. The track to get to the first one was ok most of
the time, but sometimes seemed a bit dangerous, leaning out towards the
depth. It was interesting to talk to people in the villages even though it
could be a bit too much of a crowd sometimes.
Walking in the Simiens
The last day we had to walk from the village in the lowlands
to the road in the highlands. We had to walk up a very high peak and I
really had problems getting up there! I seemed to react to the lack of
oxygen on the altitude worse than the others even though I coped with the
altitude in the Andes in Peru pretty ok. I don't lie if I say that I was
very close to not making it at all!
During the walk we had mules to carry the luggage and some
extra that you could ride if you got tired. The problem was that you
couldn't ride where the track was the hardest, and that was were you would
have really needed it!
On the way to Geech, on of the women in the group broke her
foot. She then had to stay the night in Geech, ride a mule to the road, wait
for a truck that passes twice a day, go on the back of the truck to
Debark where she was picked up by the travel leader (who didn't come with us
in the Simiens). Then it was only a few hours to Gondar before she could get
to a hospital... So take care!
Lalibela and the rock-hewn churches
After the Simiens, we returned to Gondar where we stayed the night before
we flew to Lalibela. Lalibela is very well know for its rock-hewn churches
from the 12th or 13th century, carved out from massive rock. When building
them, they started digging around what would become the church, thus making
the walls. They then carved their way in through what would become the doors
and windows, creating the rooms inside.
It was very interesting to see the churches and the priests in Lalibela,
even though most of them where very similar in my eyes.
Priest with processional crosses in a church in Lalibela
I must warn you that in Lalibeal beggars were quite a bit
more sophisticated than in other places. They are usually students - or at
least claim to be - who approach you, start a conversation and ends with a
request for money. It felt like 99% of the conversations ended this way.
That also ment that we weren't very interested in talking to people, which
is really a shame.
St George rock-hewn church in Lalibela, seen from above
When we left Lalibela we flew back to Addis where we spend a
day before flying back to Sweden. When we came back to Addis, we really got
the feeling that it was the peak of civilisation!
All in all the tour to Ethiopia was very interesting, and I can recommend
it to anyone. No, maybe not to anyone, because you have to be prepared for
the poverty, the beggars, lack of showers and the "hole in the floor" kind
of toilets. If that is not a problem for you, you should go!
For me, the most interesting part was the meeting with the different
tribes in the south of Ethiopia. You shouldn't miss out on that! We went
there with a local agency called Ethio Fauna Travel. I can recommend them
since they knew the area and the people well, and took good care of us!
Gondar was interesting as well, and the Simiens (or Bale) is a must if
you enjoy trecking. I can recommend that you contact
Fasil Messfin if you want to have
something arranged in this area. He was our travel leader for the whole of
Ethiopia, but lives in Gondar and has very good knowledge of the area.
Finally, I would also like to recommend the Swedish travel agency
Läs&Res, who managed to prepare a most
interesting trip for us.
All text and pictures except maps Copyright Staffan Nilsson 2004
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