By Nik Quaife
Saturday November 22 2008
Announcing a holiday to Ethiopia is likely to be met with the following response: "But will you be able to eat?" Everyone, it seems, thinks that they know Ethiopia. The famine of 1984 and planet-wide publicity of Live Aid portrayed this troubled African state as an immense, muck-brown desert filled with flies and starving children. The bleak pictures broadcast on TV effectively destroyed it as a tourist destination.
Yes, Ethiopia is a poor country -- one of the world's poorest -- and food distribution problems persist, but there is, nonetheless, much to enjoy there. The country's ancient monuments, burial chambers and religious history rival Egypt's, and the surprisingly green and fertile landscapes feed a plethora of wildlife, from baboons to zebra.
Ethiopia will surprise even the most jaded traveller. As the only African country never colonised (the Italians only 'occupied' what was then Abyssinia during the Second World War), Ethiopians proudly call themselves 'pure' Africans. With its own calendar (seven years and eight months behind our own), year length (13 months), clock (12-hour cycles starting at 6am), and an ancient language -- Amarhic -- not spoken anywhere else, Ethiopia and its people are strikingly idiosyncratic.
Bigger than France and Germany combined, it is Africa's second-largest country after Nigeria. Its high mountain ranges and altitude have earned it the nickname 'Switzerland of Africa'; a fitting description given that the capital, Addis Ababa, has the highest concentration of embassies after Geneva and New York, and is headquarters to the 53-member African Union. The high dose of diplomacy might explain Ethiopians' openness, tolerance of hardship and eagerness to help.
With none of the chaos of Cairo or nuisances of Nairobi, Addis is, by African standards, a safe and cordial city. You can put in hours people-watching: young girls wearing the modest national garb of white cotton shawls, stooped in day-long prayer outside the city's numerous Orthodox Christian churches; rows of barefooted shoe-shiners perched underneath newly-constructed cement buildings, which are held up by fragile scaffolding made from eucalyptus trees; traditional dancers in white robes hissing through clenched teeth and rhythmically jerking their shoulders to the asymmetrical beats of the national folk dance in tourist bars with corrugated roofs.
Other sights in the capital include the National Museum of Ethiopia, home to the world's oldest hominid skeleton -- the fascinating 3.3 million-year-old 'Lucy' -- and hiking the eucalyptus-clad slopes of nearby Mount Entoto to visit the former palace of Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu.
However, you're unlikely to fly seven hours to Ethiopia and only stay in Addis. After a few days in the capital acclimatising both to Africa and the lack of oxygen (the 2,000m-plus altitude that awards Ethiopia more than its fair share of Olympic medal-winning marathon runners can seriously challenge the used-to-sea-level Irish), you'll want to head north on the historical route -- a 600km must-see circuit which many consider to be the real highlight of Ethiopia.
The route starts a little under an hour's flight north from Addis at the jacaranda-lined, Mediterranean-like town of Bahir Dar. The lakeside vistas and colourful palm-lined avenues of this tourist-friendly town are a good base from which to explore the nearby Blue Nile Falls. Often compared to the better-known Victoria Falls, these gushing waters, more than 45m high, are as far from the images of drought-and-desert, Live Aid Ethiopia as you can get. The falls are the source of the great river Nile, which flows east from here, nourishing Ethiopia's green and plant-rich Rift Valley before crossing into Sudan, where it joins the White Nile and heads north to Cairo. The Falls are fed from the nearby circular-shaped Lake Tana, Ethiopia's largest lake and home to dozens of islands, peppered with centuries-old monasteries where monks study and pray.
There is an incredible serenity here, watching the tankwas (papyrus boats) ferry firewood across the sticky water to churches; an ideal location for an afternoon's contemplation beneath the flotillas of white flamingos and pelicans.
Leaving Bahir Dar, heading north to the impressive former capital city of Gonder, you'll pass small market towns with grass-roof huts, where barefoot goat farmers wearing the sh'ma -- a white shawl -- sell mangoes, papaya and coke (a fig-like fruit) to villagers, who shelter from the equatorial sun under handmade parasols. The city's piazza, Royal Enclosure and stone palaces are solid and impressive and would not look out of place in post-Renaissance Italy.
Gonder is the gateway to the dramatic Simien Mountains, where the landscape starts to resemble a giant chess game with bishops' mitres, queens' crowns and rooks' turrets carving their way up more than 4,000m towards the Arizona-blue skies. This checkerboard landscape is an animal lover's and birdwatcher's paradise, but most come to these craggy and remote mountains for the the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
More than 15 interconnecting churches, some towering 10m high, were carved more than 800 years ago directly into the red tuva rock of this mountain village, creating what many say should be the eighth man-made Wonder of the World.
How these churches were built is as puzzling as the construction of Egypt's pyramids. Some estimates say that more than 40,000 people would have been required to carve the supernatural churches, and the resulting giant shrine is as close as anyone can get to praying inside a mountain. The resident Orthodox monks, priests and shamma-wearing hermits spend their lives here, praying and studying scripture. Their home, only recently discovered by outsiders, is by far the major highlight of Ethiopia.
The final stop on this historical route, and a short distance from Ethiopia's disputed northern border with Somalia, is the holy city of Axum (Aksum). A must for Da Vinci Code addicts, it was once the centre of the Axumite Empire (in existence at least 300 years before Christ's birth) and it's here that the famous Lost Ark of the Covenant is said to reside.
These two stone tablets, on which God is believed to have engraved the Ten Commandments, are in the town's Cathedral of St Mary of Zion. Guarded by a single priest who can never leave, only two Westerners have ever claimed to have seen the Lost Ark, but the pageantry and secrecy surrounding it make for an interesting afternoon tour -- as well as fodder for a range of books and a lucrative Indiana Jones franchise.
Other highlights of antiquity in this otherwise inconspicuous town are the ancient Stellae fields with their obelisks, burial chambers, mummies and hidden treasures, and the baths of the Old Testament's Queen of Sheba.
As an introduction to sub-Saharan Africa, Addis Ababa and this northern circuit are unequalled. The country is safe (muggings are rare compared with neighbouring countries), easy on the pocket (the local St George beer is 25c, SIM cards are less than €1), and not as hot as other equatorial countries, thanks to the high altitude.
Some things will remind you that you're not in Europe -- the afternoon power cuts, sporadic hot water, and hole-in-the-ground toilets -- but, for the most part, Ethiopia presents nothing more challenging than backpacking around South-East Asia.
The one drawback is the roads. They are notoriously bad, with giant pot-holes, no tarmac and frequent dead-ends, so it's wise to think about flying to most of the destinations on the historical route (Ethiopian Airlines has regular daily flights to all the cities mentioned here).
It's also difficult to find luxury accommodation. There is one five-star hotel in Addis, but Western-style lavishness has yet to come to the rest of the country. Staying at the government-owned Ghion chain hotels is a perfectly comfortable option, if you don't mind intermittent cold showers and jumble-sale furniture.
And besides, do you really need luxury? Only the most selfish of travellers would demand a high cotton count in one of the poorest countries in the world. You don't go to Ethiopia to be pampered but to be among the first to see it, with the added satisfaction of knowing that your money benefits the locals. Seeing the smiles of two young boys in Lalibela who converted a disused lorry container into a profitable internet café, thanks to the patronage of two Dutch tourists, illustrates how foreign currency can help improve the lot of a country and perhaps develop it into one of the great tourist destinations.
Putting up with minor inconveniences is a small price to pay for Ethiopia's history, people and landscape. And, yes, you can eat -- the food's quite good, actually.
Go there soon; it's time to turn Ethiopia's image from one of famine to feast.
- Nik Quaife