Ethiopia – Our Personal Experience touring one of Africa’s most beautiful Countries

“From ancient cities, historic cliff top churches to deserts, lava lakes, hots springs and camel rides, the latest Travel Concepts escorted tour got up-close and personal with this mystical land. They even had dinner with a hyena!”

“From ancient cities, historic cliff top churches to deserts, lava lakes, hots springs and camel rides, the latest Travel Concepts escorted tour got up-close and personal with this mystical land. They even had dinner with a hyena!”

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From ancient cities, historic cliff top churches to deserts, lava lakes, hots springs and camel rides, the latest Travel Concepts escorted tour got up-close and personal with this mystical land. They even had dinner with a hyena!

Our Travel Consultant Ester accompanied the group, fulfilling her own bucket list adventure and on her return, over Ethiopian coffee of course, our CEO Richard Holt chatted with her about her impressions, experience and highlights.

So, Ester, welcome back from what sounds like an amazing experience in Ethiopia, what was the main focus for this particular tour?

The itinerary for the tour was designed around unearthing a truly historic Ethiopian experience, getting to understand and see its wonderful, varied history and cultural influences as well as the incredible landscapes and scenery. We saw ancient towns and monasteries, rock castles and churches perched on cliff faces, historic paintings and incredible art. Followed by wildlife, incredible natural scenery, volcanoes, lava lakes and camel rides in the desert, the trip covered a lot of ground from all ends of the country, it was exhilarating and fascinating!

people hiking simien mountains

How many people were on the tour?

The tour group was 19 of us in total, including Ralph Roseman, our esteemed tour leader and myself. For the most part we were individual travellers or friends travelling together and there were 3 couples. We were all South African, apart from 2 couples hailing from the UK, and another single traveller from Malaysia.

Where did it all start?

We flew directly from Cape Town to Addis Ababa, which has recently become a direct option through Ethiopian Airways.  Only 8 hours away the country is really accessible now. The only downside of our direct flight to Addis, was arriving late at night, meaning we did not initially see much of Addis and arrived to our hotel at midnight. Addis is, for most visitors, surprisingly large, and developing at a rapid speed – with many international companies using Addis as their headquarters from where they run their African operations.

From Addis where did the tour take you?

Our first full day started off early with a flight to Bahar Dar in the North of the country. It’s an old port city on the shore of Lake Tana, the largest natural lake in Ethiopia and a source for the Blue Nile River. Our destination was Dek island one of the many islands on the lake and famous for ancient monasteries and colourful murals. The boat trip to the island was wonderful, especially the scenery, including hippos bathing in the water.

We walked through thick forest to two monasteries with the most intricate artworks, each with a fascinating story behind them – and a very informative local guide to explain each piece to us.

Our second day consisted of a road trip to historic Gondar and the ancient 12th century Gondar Castle. Nestled at the foot of the imposing Simien mountains this was definitely a highlight for many of the group and if only the walls could talk – you could picture centuries of emperors and nobility passing through the castle!

Following Gondar, we drove through to the Simien National Park, a personal highlight for me, being a lover of nature and the outdoors. The mountain scenery and plunging cliffs were some of the most spectacular scenery I have witnessed and we stayed at the highest lodge in Africa – the Simien lodge. It literally took your breath away, as the air was so thin. Just walking to the restaurant for dinner was an effort in itself, but the views and the landscape were completely worth it.

blue flowers simien mountain national park ethiopua

From Gondar you took an internal flight to Lalibela to explore the rock and cave churches, which are a World heritage site, what was it like?

I’m honestly still in awe and struggle to find words to describe Lalibela. The rock churches, perched atop plunging cliffs will leave anyone in complete awe! Over 40,000 people over 26 years, literally chiselled these churches out of the cliffs with the most intricate, colourful design and architecture. The local rumour is that angels came down from the heavens to work on the churches while everyone else was sleeping – and to be honest it is easy to believe.

We also had the opportunity to attend a church service in Lalibela, on the Sunday before we left. This was a completely humbling experience for our group – to see the many thousands of people arriving from all over the region to attend a service in any one of the eleven churches. These churches are utilised for service as they were thousands of years ago, as religion plays a vital part in the daily life of every Ethiopian. For many religious people who are unable to make it to Jerusalem, Lalibela is the favoured choice for a religious pilgrimage.

You also spent time exploring Harar, which is one of the most ancient and holy Muslim cities – what was this like? What did you see and do?

Harar was a welcomed stop on the trip after having a few long days isolated and breathless in the mountains. Our hotel was centrally located, allowing us to easily explore the ancient architecture and local markets at a more leisurely pace. The city is also the biggest producer of ‘chat’ which is a slow-growing shrub endemic to the highlands of the Horn of Africa, where it has been cultivated as a favoured stimulant for locals. As there are many people of the Islamic faith living in Eastern Africa, drinking alcohol is forbidden, and thus ‘Chat’ is the favoured choice of stimulant.

The dynamics of the city were fascinating to me – in the early hours of the day the city was a buzz of people working, and you really felt that everyone around you had something to do, but then as soon as lunchtime hit, the city became lazy and everyone seemed to return home for an afternoon nap, us included.

I’m personally fascinated about the famous Hyena man of Harar, what was it like meeting him?

The Hyena man was another highlight of our time, and really is an experience one can only find in this little pocket of Ethiopia. The tradition started many years ago when a local man started to feed meat to the hyenas to discourage them from eating his own animals. They had also begun to attack homeless people during the night, rendering the locals at the time completely fearful of these creatures. Ever since this ‘Hyena Man’ began to feed them – the attacks stopped and over time the citizens of Harar began to live in unique harmony with the animals. Experiencing a hyena feeding, was a highlight for each member of the group as it was so unique to any safari experience we could ever have at home in South Africa.   

Finally, another night in Addis before the flight home?

The last day of our tour was spent in Addis doing some last-minute shopping for gifts, mostly coffee, for family and loved-ones. We were also lucky enough to “meet” Lucy, the 3.1 million-year-old hominin, in a local museum. We ended the day with one final meal, altogether, reminiscing on the highs and lows of the past two weeks, the memories and making of new friendships.

So, after a few days to reflect on your Ethiopian experience what do you think were the main highlights for the group?

I think everyone had their own personal highlights, but we all agreed that the landscapes and scenery were the most incredible parts of our trip. The Danakil Depression is known as one of the lowest, driest and hottest places on earth – in some places near the ghost town of Dallol it is nearly 120 metres below sea level – and believe me, we felt that heat! It fascinated me to watch the local people toil away in that heat, as they do every day. Their labour was to cut out blocks of salt on the salt plains, which they would then load onto the backs of their camels, known as a camel caravan, to walk many kilometers to the local town to sell the salt.

To book your place on our November 2018 tour to Ethiopia – click here!