15th April – 13th May 2018
Ethiopia was a bit of a shock after four months travelling around South East Asia. For the first few days in Addis Ababa, the capital, we felt slightly out of our depth and were nervous for our next month of travel. Africa is less travelled by the budget backpacker than well known destinations such as Bangkok or Bali. This doesn’t mean it’s not possible it just means you need a little more time and a bit more persistence. We had one month in Ethiopia and we saw some fantastic sights.
Once we left the capital we started exploring northern Ethiopia on the well travelled historical circuit and started to feel comfortable again. We soon realised that travelling anywhere in the world uses the same basic skills and that it doesn’t matter where you are. We travelled in Ethiopia using both local buses and internal flights. A great tip for travelling in Ethiopia is that flying into the country using Ethiopian Airlines makes you eligible for an amazing discount of up to about 60% on all domestic flights. We flew from Gondor to Axum for just over £25 each. That’s a bargain! The alternative journey by public transport can take two days so you save a lot of time as well.
Ethiopia is a large country and it’s worth noting that although we spent a full month here by no means did we see the whole country. We focused on the historical north and left the tribal regions of the south to another time. Ethiopia was never really colonized, apart from a short Italian occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, making it Africa’s oldest independent country. This means that the country is steeped in history. This northen circuit takes you to beautiful rock hewn churches, ancient tombs from the time of the Queen of Sheba and castles built by the descendants of King Solomon. Intertwined with these sights is also some stunning nature. We did four days trekking in the Simien Mountains and also a tour to the Danakil Depression, a magical volcanic area in the Afar region. I will talk about these in more detail later.
Food and Drink
Injera is an Ethiopian savoury pancake. It is made out of tef flour and has a distinctive sour taste. It is used as the base of almost all Ethiopian dishes. The large pancake is laid out on a silver tray with the main dish such as tibs or shiro piled on top. You use the injera to eat the dish with your hands. Our favourite injera dish was an ‘Agelgel’, which is a injera with a mix of traditional meat and vegetarian dishes on top. It’s great for sharing.
This is a very traditional breakfast dish in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan. It is made from slow cooked fava beans served with raw onion, hot green peppers and often yogurt. It is, like most Ethiopia dishes, eaten with your hands with some help from some crusty bread rolls. After some ful we were always full!
Ethiopia is the home of coffee and it is the main cash crop. A buna is a local espresso style coffee served very sweet and was available almost everywhere for as little as 13p. The beans are roasted over charcoal and then crushed before being added to the gabana (traditional coffee pot). There is an interesting coffee ceremony which was traditionally performed as a ritual to please the spirits known as zar. Fresh grass is thrown on the floor to make the zar spirits feel at home. Incense is burnt as the smell is meant to please the spirits. Extra cups are placed on the tray the coffee is served from for the zars and while pouring the coffee from the gabana spilling some coffee is fine as the spirits are humble and will drink from the tray. Today this ceremony is a social event and to get a very small coffee does often take some time.
The Danakil Depression is a desert area below sea level in north eastern Ethiopia near to the Eritrean border. The area sits on the junction of three tectonic plates making it volcanically active. It also used to be part of the red sea meaning there are massive amounts of salt deposits here. At some points of Lake Afrera the salt is 5km thick. This place is seemingly inhospitable with salt everywhere and an unbearable heat and yet the nomadic Afar people live and work in this region.
Our highlight of the area was Dallol, which the guides called the ‘colourful place’, shown in the photograph above. This spectacular sight makes you feel like you are on another planet. There are no safety barriers so you walk around wherever you want exploring the beautiful acid pools and multicoloured salty formations. The site was caused when emergent magma came in contact with salty standing water. The different minerals have then resulted in fluorescent sulphuric yellows, earthy reds and oranges, bright lime greens and pure whites. Its was like nothing I have ever seen and I think I won’t see anything like it again.
As a tourist you can only visit this area as part of an organised tour due to the high level of security required and also to organise the complex system of permits with the Afar people. We went with Ethio Travel and Tours a popular and well reviewed company. All tours start from Mekele where ETT have an office. Three or four day tours run almost everyday and so I would suggest organising your trip in person, in the office allowing you to negotiate a good price.
This is one of Ethiopia’s most spectacular mountain ranges with multiple high peaks including the highest peak in the country, Ras Dashen (4553m). We did an organised four day hike with a group along the mountain range staying in basic lodges. On the final day we walked up to Ras Bwahit (4430m), the second highest peak in the country. The hike traversed the Northern Escarpment with some amazing views from the steep cliff edges over the lower mountains. The walk also offers some amazing wildlife. We saw fields of the very tame Gelada baboons, the rare endemic Ethiopian wolf and Walia Ibex. We both felt that the trek was very different to anything else we had done during this trip and was not what we were expecting from Ethiopia.
Gheralta Cluster of the Tigray Churches
The Tigray region of Ethiopia is scattered with over a hundred beautiful remote rock hewn churches. We visited the Gheralta Cluster which is accessible by either a tour from Axum or from the small town of Hawzien if you are organising a visit yourself, as we did. The three churches, Maryam Korkor, Daniel Korkor and Abuna Yemata Guh, take a full day of hiking to visit. The churches are high up in the Gheralta Escarpment and requires a steep climb and some precarious paths along the edge of the cliff face. The reason for building these churches so far away is speculated to be so that you are physical closer to God but also so that the churches are difficult to find for thieves.
The churches themselves are small but beautiful. They are carved out of the rock and internally are covered in ancient religious painting depicting scenes from the Bible as well as well known saints. Despite the remoteness of these churches we were told that local villages still come up here every Sunday, and on religious feast days, for mass. There are numerous rock hewn churches all over northern Ethiopia and what we enjoyed most about the Gheralta cluster was the experience of getting to the churches as well as the churches themselves.
Things we learnt
- Ethiopia can be a very dry and dusty place as you might imagine. Yet keeping your shoes clean is a high priority for a lot of local people. Lining the streets of the towns and cities are shoe cleaners ready to make your dirty trainers sparkling white or to shine your leather shoes.
- In Ethiopia the time is off-set by 6 hours. The Ethiopian day, and therefore clock, starts at 6am unlike elsewhere in the world where a new day starts at midnight. This is to correspond with sunrise and sunset. This means that 2pm east Africa time is 8am Ethiopia time. It’s very confusing. Fortunately not many things here run to a set timetable.
- We both agreed that Ethiopia was the worst country we have ever visited for hassle and unwanted attention. Wherever we have travelled during this trip we have stood out for being tall, blonde and pale skinned. I have a list of stories but most end with everyone laughing and smiling but this wasn’t always the case in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia when we walked down the street everyone stared at us with a confused looked. People would not smile even when we smiled at them. We also found that children and teenagers constantly followed us asking for money or offering their services. We would always hear “give me money” everywhere we went. We both understand that this is a poor country and they have every right to ask us for money and how we as travellers do have more money than them. We do however normally prefer it to be less blunt and we both agree that it’s wrong to encourage begging particularly when it is children. We are now well travelled and thick skinned and so got used to this. We tried to come up with fun games to distract the children in particular from begging. Rich spent about half an hour racing some small kids up a hill in the boiling heat after they followed us saying “give me pen!“.
Top three phrases/words
- Okay – Ishi
- How much? – Sint New?
- Thank you – Aneseghinalehu
Travel Statistics for Ethiopia
Beers drank: 30 (each)
Beds slept in: 18 (each)
Bribes paid: 0
- Plane: 4
- Bus: 4
- Minibus: 8
- Boat: 1
- Taxi: 6
- Car: 13
- Rickshaw: 7
Spending in Ethiopia
Currency: Ethiopian Birr
Currency Conversion: £1 = 36.87 ETB
Number of days in country: 28
One interesting fact is that the largest note here is 100 birr which is equal to slightly more than £2.50. This means your wallet is often very full even though it not worth that much money.
Breakdown of spending (together) -
Food & Beverage: £204.48
Activities: £1,151. 76
Total (together): £2,405.51
Total (per person): £1,202.76
Average Daily Spend (together): £69.72
Average Daily Spend (per person): £34.86
ADS excludes all flights into and out of the country.
ADS includes internal flights, four day Danakil Depression tour and four day Simien Mountain trek.