ETHIOPIA, WITH ITS ANCIENT HAND-CARVED CHURCHES, OTHERWORLDLY MOUNTAINSCAPES AND COLOURFUL ETHIO-JAZZ SCENE, HAS FILLED MY DAYDREAMS FOR YEARS. RECENTLY, I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO SPEAK WITH JAKARTA-BASED AUSTRALIAN JOURNALIST NICK PERRY, WHO SHARED TALES OF HIS RECENT JOURNEY TO THIS LARGELY UNDISCOVERED DESTINATION.
Nick, thank you so much for chatting to me about your incredible Ethiopian adventure. This isn’t a country that’s usually front of mind for travellers, so what inspired you to visit? What were your first impressions when you arrived?
Ethiopia should be crawling with tourists. It’s the home of coffee, the Queen of Sheba and the oldest known human ancestor on the planet. Its ancient monolithic churches, mysteriously carved by hand out of stone 900 years ago, rival the Pyramids or Stonehenge, while the indigenous women of the remote Omo Valley still wear lip discs and practice ritual scarring.
By and large Ethiopia is off the radar for most people, but I feel that’s changing. The outdated images of a nation struggling with famine and war are fading, and more people are discovering what a remarkable place it truly is.
My girlfriend and I had been fascinated with Ethiopia since reading about its stone monolithic churches, but it just grew on us the more we read. Did you know the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is still considered a god in Jamaica by Rastafarians like the late Bob Marley? Or that one of the three kings in the Bible was believed to have been an Ethiopian? We soaked this up. Discovering Ethiopian food for the first time and the music of Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke (do yourself a favour!) made the decision that much easier.
Despite having lived and travelled extensively in Asia we were both a bit taken aback upon arriving in Addis Ababa. It’s very run down, grimy, crowded and uninviting. But there were gems hidden away, and nonetheless it’s what’s outside the capital that captivates visitors.
Can you run us through your journey, to give us a sense of how it unfolded?
We spent a month travelling northern Ethiopia in a loop, starting and ending in Addis. We were lucky enough to visit during Christmas, which in Ethiopia falls in January (they follow a different, 13-month calendar).
After a few days in the capital we headed by bus to Harar, an ancient citadel near Somalia and one of the most important cities in Islam, with several mosques dating back centuries. From there we returned to Addis, visiting an obelisk field outside the city before travelling overland to Lalibela, home to the legendary churches carved into cliff sides and caves.
We then skirted the Eritrean border, visiting remote hilltop monasteries amid the Grand Canyon-esque landscape of Tigray, before arriving in the ancient holy city of Aksum by 4WD.
A trek in the Great Rift Valley came next, followed by Epiphany celebrations in Gondar which involved the wildest parade we’ve ever participated in, culminating in hundreds of pilgrims jumping into Queen Sheba’s palace bath for baptism.
A few cruisy days on the lake at Bahir Dahr came next, with a trip to the raging source of the Blue Nile, before we returned to Addis.
Your images of Lalibela are absolutely mind-blowing. I find it hard to believe man was able to create something that magical. How was your experience there? Any particular moments that stand out in your mind?
We joined tens of thousands of pilgrims for an all-night vigil on Christmas Eve at Bet Medhane Alem, a giant, multi-levelled stone church resembling something out of an Indiana Jones film. Orthodox Christian priests stood on the upper levels chanting while we were led to the church’s main interior via a system of narrow underground tunnels. Emerging in a cloud of frankincense smoke, a high priest in a gold crown wandered the church blessing pilgrims one by one, while those wishing to cleanse their sins bathed in a stone bath. The worshipers broke out into song at dawn, playing drums, dancing and singing in a party that lasted two days. We couldn’t get enough.
Can you tell us about your trek through the Simien Mountains? The wildlife there is meant to be stunning. What were some of the most impressive creatures and landscapes you saw?
The first thing you notice is the mountains. Sharp, steep spires rise from the valley floor, zig-zagging for miles in all directions, spilling down into canyons or plateauing into vast grassy steppes. The sky was huge, making for stunning nights around the campfire.
On the trek during the day you’d often get a sense of being watched. The hills are literally swarming with hundreds-strong troupes of Bleeding Heart Baboons, named after the distinctive red patch on their chest. They have fiery tempers, and we’d find ourselves unintentionally with ringside seats to giant brawls between warring males scrapping over territory.
While the famously elusive Ethiopian wolf was just that (there’s only a few left), we did manage to get a few meters from a herd of Walia Ibex, which was worth the after breath-snatching scramble up a hillside at 4000 metres!
I’ve read that Harar can be overwhelming. How did you find it? What were the craziest things you saw there?
Watching a man dangle raw meat from a stick in his mouth to feed an adult hyena has to be one of the crazier things we saw – not just in Harar, but anywhere for that matter!
We actually found Harar really chilled out. People were extremely friendly – especially after the intensity of Addis – inviting us for espressos or stopping to offer fascinating tidbits of history. Harar oozes charm and definitely has a wild west feel. It was once a major trading post, and despite its high walls has been conquered numerous times, leaving Ethiopian, Arab and Italian touches behind.
It wasn’t unusual to find yourself virtually alone wandering its colourful, thousand-year-old labyrinthine backstreets. Just watch your step – we stumbled unintentionally into someone’s terraced backyard and found a family carving up a camel for tea!
What surprised you most about Ethiopia?
The terrain. Almost everywhere up north is on an elevated plain, with mountain chains and highlands. It was still dry and dusty, but a far cry from the desert-like landscape I had pictured.
It’s a land of physical extremes, boasting some of Africa’s highest peaks and one of earth’s lowest and hottest depressions. The topography around Tigray in Ethiopia’s far north looked like the Grand Canyon, catching me totally off guard.
Travel, especially to off-the-grid destinations like Ethiopia, can be truly transformational. Do you think your journey there changed you in any profound way?
This was my first trip to Africa, and it definitely left a lasting impression on me. I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit, especially to remoter locations in Asia, but Ethiopia has set a very high bar. Now whenever daydreaming about future destinations, I find myself craving everything we experienced in Ethiopia – the crazy festivals, the ancient relics, the wildlife, the food, the road trips.
Finally, why is it important for people to travel to Ethiopia, in your opinion?
People usually assume I was on assignment covering some horrible conflict or disaster, so are shocked to learn I was there – voluntarily! – for a holiday. But their reaction stems from outdated notions of Ethiopia as a war-ridden dust bowl plagued by famine, a blighted and horrible place to be avoided at all costs. It’s not. Just ask its people. They couldn’t be prouder of Ethiopia’s ancient history, its traditions, its natural bounty and wealth of jaw-dropping relics.
I think if people understand this story better, they’re more likely to shed off their hangups about Ethiopia and give it a go. They won’t regret it. There can’t be that many places in the world where you’ll find yourself in an ancient, stone-cut church high up a mountainside, being told legends by a priest leafing through a 500-year-old goat leather bible. And you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
Follow Nick on Instagram, @nickeperry