Ethiopia started calling long before the idea of going there was ever even a thought in my head. I remember sitting in doctor’s waiting rooms as a kid, poring through National Geographic and being completely fascinated by the tribeswomen I saw depicted between those pages. Their lower lips heavy with clay disks. Their bare breasts pointing defiantly at the camera.
I remember a conversation with one of my dearest friends, almost a decade ago now, when the thought of becoming a travel writer first crossed my mind. “You’ll have to go to Lalibela,” she said, and filled my mind with images of churches cut into the rock a thousand years ago, by a king who claimed that angels had helped him build them overnight.
I remember the first time I heard the Ethiopian jazz music of Mulatu Astatke, and how those rhythms entered a part of my body music had never touched before.
The more I learnt about this country, the more I became convinced that there was so much more to it than the famines, wars and long distance runners, which seemed to be the only Ethiopian stories coming out in the western media. I knew, deep inside, that going there would teach me profound lessons about both the world and myself, and that my time there would be nothing short of profound.
Cut to last month and there Pete (my husband) and I finally were, standing in a dusty field, surrounded by Hamar tribespeople in southern Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, not quite believing that we’d finally made it to this extraordinary land of origins.
Based in the small village of Turmi, we spent those first five days exploring the Omo Valley, each day meeting a different tribe. There was the Konso tribe, living peacefully in the UNESCO-listed 600-year-old Gamole walled village, which looked like something out of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. There was the day-long bull jumping ceremony we stumbled on by chance, where we watched in fascination as the Hamar tribespeople sang and danced their way through the afternoon, the women being whipped with sticks by the men to prove their strength and, at the end of the day, a man running naked over the backs of a dozen bulls to prove his suitability as a husband to his bride-to-be.
There was the elaborately painted Karo tribe, whose village of grass huts overlooked the Omo River, and the Daasanach tribe right on the Kenyan border, whose young female members danced and sang for us, and attempted to braid my hair like theirs.
We saw so much beauty over these five days. But the most striking thing for me was the way that the Omo Valley tribeswomen wore their skin with such pride. Some of them had heavily scarred backs from the whipping ceremonies; others had breasts reaching down to their bellies, something they didn’t seem ashamed of at all since they’re a sign of the children they’ve fed and the thousands of kilometres they’ve walked gathering food and water for their families. Fashion wasn’t a concept for them, yet adornment was since each feather, each paint stroke, each bead was symbolic.
Spending time with them made our western practices of filling our bodies with plastic and chemicals and going into debt over fleeting trends seem more insane than ever, and made me want to love the skin I’m in as much as these women seemed to love theirs.
From the Omo Valley, we flew back to Addis Ababa and then the following morning to Lalibela, the Petra of Ethiopia. Ninety percent of Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians, Ethiopia being the second country on the planet to adopt Christianity, and we were lucky enough to have timed our visit with Ethiopian Christmas on January 7.
I’ve personally never been a fan of Christmas. The over-consumption and excessive consumerism, the lack of real meaning, the strangeness of celebrating an overweight man dressed in red squeezing down our chimneys in the middle of the night – none of it has ever really resonated with me. So to experience it in Ethiopia, where Christmas still has deep meaning and is steeped in rituals and mysticism was extraordinary.
By day, we watched the 200,000-odd pilgrims wrapped in white cotton stream into the city, some of whom had walked for months to get there, and explored the incredible 11 rock-hewn churches that King Lalibela and his people carved into the earth up to 1000 years ago. On Christmas eve, we made our way to the House of Christ church, where we joined the pressing crowds of pilgrims and navigated cliffs surrounding the rock-cut churches in the darkness.
Eventually we found a little spot perched right above the 500 priests, who stood at the base of the church below clad in embroidered robes, their intricate silver Orthodox crosses in hand, chanting their sermons. Surrounded by pilgrims reading their bibles by candlelight, we watched in awe as the scent of frankincense filled the air along with an intensely mystical, spiritual energy.
Our next destination was the UNESCO-listed Simien Mountains national park. Created 70 million years ago by volcanic activity and shaped by the Ice Age into psychedelic peaks and spires, nothing could have prepared us for their beauty.
By night at the Simien Lodge, the highest hotel in Africa, we sipped (surprisingly delicious) Ethiopian Rift Valley shiraz, watched documentaries about the mountains and devoured three-course feasts. By day we hiked the 4000-metre mountains, along paths lined with Abyssinian rose, moss and thyme, as eagles and vultures wheeling overhead.
These mountains are home to three species that can be found nowhere else on the planet – the gelada (also known as bleeding heart) baboon, the Ethiopian wolf, and the walia ibex. While we only managed to see the baboons, they were in such abundance that we quickly forgot all about the others. At one point we stood amongst a group of over 100 of the ground-dwelling, grass-eating creatures for almost an hour, observing them from less than a metre away. They were too busy grooming, eating and mating to give us a second glance.
Home to six UNESCO-listed fairytale castles and a royal compound dating back to the 17th century, Gondar was our next destination. Once the ancient capital of Ethiopia, each emperor that reigned in Gondar built their own castle, partly as a legacy, but also to confuse aggressors who wouldn’t know which was occupied when they came to attack. This meant that each castle had its own specific architectural style depending on where that emperor had travelled, from Portugal to India and beyond. We spent a fascinating day exploring these castles, hearing tales of royal intrigue, and wishing we could have stuck around for Timkat festival, held in Gondar just a week after our visit.
Less than a three hour drive away was Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake. After all our adventuring we treated ourselves to a decadent afternoon of massages and swimming at our lovely resort Kuriftu, which was set right on the lake. We then headed out on a boat trip to explore the islands that dot the 73-kilometre-long lake, many of which have ancient churches and monasteries hidden on them, and to see the lake’s resident hippos which we were be able to spot from our boat.
For the grand finale, we headed to the Blue Nile Falls, part of the source of the Nile River. It took a bumpy, 90-minute drive from Lake Tana and a half hour hike to get there, but it well worth the journey. Standing beneath the falls, feeling the raw power of nature, was the perfect way to farewell this wild, untamed country.
Until next time, Ethiopia.
I travelled to Ethiopia with Bench Africa. I was completely disorganised, but they managed to pull everything together last minute and did a spectacular job building a dream itinerary for us. I’d highly recommend using them if you’re keen to plan a trip to Ethiopia; they have great contacts on the ground and will make you feel completely safe and at ease. Oh and just so you know, I paid for this trip in full.