Wild Ethiopia: Simien and Bale Mountains

Due to Ethiopia’s mountains, it lacks the famous megafauna found elsewhere in Africa, save for along the western and southern borders, which are far more difficult to access. The tradeoff for this is that the landscapes and views from the mountain parks are nothing short of spectacular (and the wildlife watching, while subdued, is nonetheless exceptional). Ethiopia does have tremendous biodiversity, including numerous endemic species, but much of it faces the same threats as elsewhere in the developing world, with habitat destruction, overpopulation, overgrazing, and pollution causing wildlife to retreat into protected or otherwise remote areas. Luckily for tourists like me, these areas have become much less remote as the government has made significant effort to pave roads and encourage development near the national parks to boost tourism, and numerous agencies manage transportation and handle the array of required permits, personnel, and equipment.

I visited two of Ethiopia’s national parks, and despite the historical and cultural wonders of the cities, I can safely say these were the highlights of the trip. My first, after Gondar, was the Simien Mountains National Park where I spent two days and one night hiking and camping. The Simien Mountains are considered Ethiopia’s Grand Canyon, and are deservedly famous both for their steep drop-offs and awe-inspiring views and for the local wildlife – gelada monkeys, walia ibex, and rare Ethiopian wolves. The park itself incorporates Ethiopia’s highest peak and mountain meadows used by local herders for grazing – unfortunately, this means the most common fauna are cows and sheep and there are significant erosion issues. Nonetheless, despite the altitude (most of the park is above 11,000 feet), the views from my campsite at Geech and from the peak of Imet Gogo the next day more than made up for the exercise of carrying my pack through the mountains (most treks include a mule to carry any baggage, my tour company apparently just pocketed that portion of the fees for the first day and let me use my own strength). And there was little difficulty seeing the park’s famous denizens – I passed multiple hundred strong packs of gelada monkeys just driving in, and more while on the trail. While returning to camp after sunset, our guide tracked down a unique noise to find an Ethiopian wolf, which we followed back toward the camp for some time – and then saw again the next day when it came around the camp garbage, only perhaps 100 yards from the tents. With only 500 individuals left in the world in a few sections of the Ethiopian highlands, seeing an Ethiopian wolf is a treat – but maybe not quite so rare, as they’ll come up again later in this post. Hiking in Ethiopia’s national parks is a change from elsewhere in the Western world, and not just for the landscape and wildlife. Both to provide sustainable employment to local people and to provide protection from the rare but still present leopards and hyenas (Ethiopian wolves are too small to pose much threat to humans), all trekkers are required to hire both a guide and an armed scout. I, however, did not get a guide for the first day and was left to wander around with a non-English-speaking scout and one other British traveler.

My second trip was also up into the mountains, but this time in the south of Ethiopia in the Bale Mountains. The only part of my travels that went south of Addis Ababa, traveling to the Bale Mountains meant passing through the Oromo regions, luckily no longer restive. There are minimal physical differences between the Oromo and Amhara, however the Oromo language, which uses a Latin alphabet and is closely related to Somali, does clearly differ from Amharic, a descendant of the Ge’ez language. There is also a much larger Muslim population among the Oromo, especially as one moves further East, so minarets replaced many of the crosses I found elsewhere in the country.

The first stop on the way to the Bale Mountains was Lake Ziway, part of the Rift Valley that is a significant waterfowl habitat. While I stopped only briefly at the shore, I was surrounded by flocks of marabou storks, pelicans, and other birds that hang around to feast on the fishermen’s leftovers.

The Bale Mountains National Park encompasses a much broader range of terrain than the Simien Mountains, and despite similar altitudes is far more verdant. Here, the wildlife is the main draw over the scenery (though both are impressive) and as if they were set up for me, just after crossing the park border into the region known as the Gaysay Grassland there were so many antelope (mountain nyala, Bohor reedbuck, and Menelik’s bushbuck) and warthogs it was impossible to drive a few feet without seeing another one. This was replicated in the forested area around park headquarters, where the guide with me to track animals seemed superfluous given their ubiquity – besides the antelope and warthogs I was able to sight a colobus monkey, baboons, and a honey badger. The next day entailed driving up into the meadowlands of the Sanetti Plateau, the best place in the world to spot Ethiopian wolves. My luck at spotting these creatures continued, as I saw seven in my two trips across the plateau, some at close range, as well as many smaller rodents and several endemic birds. The wolves (as well as birds of prey) hunt the giant mole-rats whose burrows cover the landscape, easily viewable in the barren landscape when racing from den to den. The trip also took me above the clouds to the peak of Tulu Dimtu, the second highest peak in Ethiopia, and down into the Harenna Forest, where my weather luck ran out (I had been traveling towards the end of the dry season so rain was rare), and in conjunction with a miscommunication with the guide that resulted in me getting lost in the jungle, I was not able to find the local Bale monkey (or, if terrifically lucky, a lion). While I regretted not getting more of a chance to hike in the park, the ease of access to the most important sites by 4WD definitely allowed me to have a better wildlife-viewing experience.

Both of these national parks, while still wildlife rich and popular with foreign tourists (though they were far from crowded at this time of year, I did not see a single visitor outside my group in the Simiens), show the challenges of maintaining large protected spaces in populated areas – in the Bale Mountains park rangers do a good job of keeping livestock out of the park, while in the Simiens there is less protection, but in both cases there are many communities within or just outside the park that rely on its resources for daily life and the parks must balance the tourism benefits of an undisturbed environment with the local demands for water, wood, and grazing land. Both parks also owe some of their upkeep to Western governments (Simiens to Austria, Bale Mountains to the EU/Oxford University). Indeed, throughout my travels in Ethiopia there were many signs of Western humanitarian involvement in Africa – local infrastructure projects bearing USAID or World Bank signs, posters urging local communities to stop migration to Europe, workers with medical charities trying to treat tropical diseases.

After the Bale Mountains, I headed back to Addis for one day to souvenir shop and relax before heading back to America with many great memories. Ethiopia is undoubtedly a challenging country – far too many of the inhabitants think of foreigners as walking piggy banks to beg or scam from, infrastructure and accommodations are certain lower quality than in the West, the cuisine can get monotonous, and political turmoil is always a risk. But I have never been anywhere like it, and its attractions are truly special, the sort of places that really are worth traveling halfway across the world to see.

Sacred Ethiopia: Lalibela and Aksum

The one benefit of not having enough Internet access to post these blogs while I was traveling is that I can organize them more thematically, instead of just going through places in the order visited. Thus, this post skips over my trip to the Simien Mountains National Park, which was my next step after Gondar, to focus on the two historic sites remaining, Lalibela and Aksum (don’t worry, there’s plenty to talk about with the national parks in the next post).

Unintentionally, I had arranged my trip so that I essentially went back in time through Ethiopia’s history, jumping from modern Addis Ababa to the 17th century castles of Gondar, to the 12th century capital of Lalibela and the even more ancient Aksum.

Lalibela today is a small community, approximately 40,000 people isolated amid soaring mountains reachable only by dirt roads. Yet during the 11th through 13th centuries, this isolation provided the perfect defense for the capital established by the Zagwe dynasty under King Lalibela. Inspired by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the news of Jerusalem’s capture by Muslim armies during the Crusades, Lalibela began an ambitious program to make his capital a new Jerusalem, and a holy city for all Christians. The result of this vision was the construction of eleven churches hewn out of solid rock, surrounded by biblically named natural features such as the River Jordan and Mount Tabor. These churches, so intricately designed and complexly engineered that Ethiopians believe they were partially built by angels when the humans stopped working during the night, are each different and each dedicated to a specific religious figure. Still in extraordinarily good condition (even though the roofs built by UNESCO detract from the scenic beauty), the churches are the main tourist attraction of Ethiopia and one of the most well-preserved historic sites in sub-Saharan Africa, most prominently the cross-shaped Bet Giyorgis (St. George’s). During the holy days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which do not necessarily align with their corresponding festivals in Western Christianity, as Ethiopian Orthodoxy follows a distinct calendar) these churches are swarmed with pilgrims from across the country – however, arriving approximately two weeks after Ethiopian Easter, the churches were largely deserted except for a few other foreign tourists and the priests. These churches generally lack the interior paintings found at the Lake Tana monasteries, though carvings along the walls and windows still have Christian symbolism and the experience of worship in the stone churches is quite distinct (if the stone floors make walking and kneeling admittedly a bit uncomfortable). Several of the churches today likely served other roles, such as palaces or storerooms in the past, providing some rationale for the many differences in design. My visit to Lalibela also included a side trip to the Yemrehana Kristos church a ways north of Lalibela in the countryside. This church, from the 11th century, predates the churches of Lalibela by almost a century. While the architectural links between the churches are clear, Yemrehana Kristos is unique in that it was built inside a cave, instead of carved out from the ground. This church became a pilgrimage site for many dying worshippers, whose mummies still fill the back of the cave in a rather macabre display of devotion. Unfortunately, for all of the tourism and pilgrimage to Lalibela, it is difficult to see a positive impact in the community, which is still quite poor and unexceptional beyond the cluster of churches.

After Lalibela I continued the Christianity theme by flying north to Aksum (often spelled Axum, especially when as a historical reference). Aksum is the heart of Ethiopia’s Tigray population, and is within sight of the bitterly contested border with Eritrea, also primarily Tigray. Also mountainous but drier than the cities I had previously visited, Aksum has an outsize importance for its small size (approximately 80,000 people). Long before the year 0, Aksum and surrounding communities were the center of Ethiopian civilization, and the growth of the Aksumite Empire in the first millennium AD, when it controlled most of the Horn of Africa as well as Yemen and parts of Sudan, left a profusion of historical relics. Foremost among these are the stone obelisks (stelae) dotted around town, especially in the Northern Stelae Field. The progression from uncarved, unraised stones to small uncarved raised stones to the massive carved raised stones (of which only three remain, the fallen Great Stela, the Rome Stela captured and returned by the Italians, and the King Ezana’s Stela (which is currently held up by scaffolding) is clear in the small field, which also contains the tombs of local notables the stelae were placed here to mark. The adoption of Christianity by Aksumite King Ezana (whose stone marker inscribed in the Aksumite Ge’ez language, Greek, and Sabaean [Yemenite] can be considered the Ethiopian Rosetta Stone) caused a conflation of the Aksumite ruins with biblical stories in later years – Aksum claims the palace and bath of the Queen of Sheba, the tomb of King Bazen (Balthazar), one of the Magi, and most importantly the Ark of the Covenant.

According to Ethiopian legend, King Solomon had a son with the Queen of Sheba. This son, Menelik, who was the founder of the Ethiopian royal lineage, traveled to Jerusalem to visit his father and on his return took the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and carried it to Ethiopia, where it has remained ever since. Now held in a small chapel between the St. Mary of Zion churches (one from the 17th century, one from the 1950s) inaccessible to all except one monk, the presence of the famous relic here makes Aksum the holiest site in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Only the monks can say if the true Ark is actually in Aksum, but with no other would-be Arks elsewhere in the world as yet, this mystery does not stop Ethiopians’ faith in their country’s possession of this most powerful of biblical objects.


Due to this claim to religious fame, Aksum is also surrounded by monasteries and rock churches, such as the hilltop monastery of Abba Pentalewon, offering views across town, north to Eritrea, and into the moonscape of the Adwa Mountains in the East, where Ethiopia won its famous victory against Italian invaders on March 1, 1896 (now an Ethiopian holiday). The importance of the Tigray region has continued into present day Ethiopia, as it was the epicenter of resistance against the Communist Derg and its inhabitants were disproportionately represented in the governments that followed the civil war – perhaps the reason for the better condition of Aksum as compared to many of the smaller Amharic and Oromo cities I passed through.

Ethiopian Orthodoxy is a far more powerful part of Ethiopian culture than Christianity is even in more religious countries such as Russia or Latin America, let alone the largely non-religious West. Ethiopian Christianity dates back to King Ezana, Aba Salama (Frumentius) and the Nine Saints in the 4th century AD, though the church claims an even older descent, to the Ethiopian official baptized by Philip in the Bible. On holy days Ethiopians will wear white ceremonial robes and spend much of the day in worship – the day I left Gondar was St. Michael’s Day, and starting at 3:00 in the morning sermons were blared by loudspeaker across the town for at least six straight hours, similar to the Muslim call to prayer. Ethiopians particularly venerate St. Mary and St. George, whose images are found in almost all churches, and spend much of the year abstaining from meat as part of a strict fasting regimen. The Ethiopian Bible, written in the ancient liturgical Ge’ez language, contains numerous unique books used by no other denomination. Yet despite this Christian fervor, modern Ethiopia is remarkably tolerant, as the third of the country which is Muslim (across all ethnic groups) coexists peacefully with Orthodox and Protestant Christians alike, and most still practice certain local traditions regardless of faith.


Ancient Bible in Ge’ez, Abba Pentalewon monastery

But after so many days seeing churches and castles, it was time to escape the small cities in Ethiopia’s nature – the focus of the last of my Ethiopia posts.

Urban Ethiopia: Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, and Gondar

Having seen Europe, Asia, North and South America on my travels so far, I started to consider taking my next trip to Africa, and Ethiopia was the first country that I started to study. As more travelers seek more adventurous destinations, Ethiopia has just barely started to feature on tourist itineraries, and with a great diversity of landscapes, wildlife, historical sites, and ethnic groups, Ethiopia seemed a wonderful place to get a first taste of the continent (the fact that it has direct flights from DC also helped). I spent two weeks traveling solo in Ethiopia, jumping between a half-dozen cities and parks to cover most of the country’s highlights.

As some background to keep track of the differences and importance of the various cities and sites I visited, here’s a brief history. Unlike most African countries, the results of modern European meddling, Ethiopia has an ancient history – it is referenced in Egyptian hieroglyphs and in the Bible, developed major civilizations as early as 1500 BC, was the world’s second nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion, and likely formed the basis for the European legends of the kingdom of Prester John. Ethiopia’s defeat of Italian would-be colonizers is a defining feature of national identity. Yet despite this history, Ethiopia today is not a unified country, and is divided into a multitude of different ethnic groups, predominantly the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, and Somali, each of which inhabit their own region of the country – I visited all except for the Somali region, which is discouraged by the State Department due to ongoing intertribal and anti-government violence. Dissatisfaction between the Oromo and Amhara, which comprise the majority of the population, and the Tigray-dominated government led to major violent protests around the country in the two years prior to my visit. Approximately one month before I arrived, the long-time prime minister was replaced with an Oromo, leading to increased optimism in the political direction of the country. Nonetheless, surging population growth and a still largely agricultural lifestyle in much of the country pose a significant challenge to any leadership seeking to integrate the masses of underemployed young people into a modern nation.

I began my trip, as most foreigners must, in the capital Addis Ababa. While no particular tourist destination itself, Addis perfectly encapsulates the changing nature of today’s Ethiopia. Flush with Chinese-built infrastructure, high-rise hotels and office buildings, diverse dining and entertainment options to suit a burgeoning middle class (and the army of foreign diplomats and NGO workers who pass through the city), Addis’ wealth has drawn in millions of people from other parts of the country, most of whom have not found the high-paying jobs they desired. As a result, much of the city consists of hastily constructed slum neighborhoods hidden behind the main streets, while the haphazard growth of even the more modern sections of town has caused major problems with congestion and pollution across the city.

Founded only at the end of the 19th century, Addis has relatively few historical sites, though it does host Ethiopia’s main museums – while admittedly shabbier than their Western counterparts, the National Museum of Ethiopia and Ethnological Museum host some important artifacts, such as the cast of the skeleton of “Lucy”, the most famous early human specimen, while the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum shines a powerful light on some of the horrific, if little-known violence of late 20th century Ethiopia under Communist rule.

Chiefly, however, for those who are not in Ethiopia for business or government purposes, Addis serves as a gateway to the more spectacular outlying regions of Ethiopia, thanks to the high-quality intercity service offered by Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s premier carrier (which offers half-off domestic flight prices to people who book on its international routes). My trip, largely following the traditional northern circuit route, focused on these cities and parks, starting with the city of Bahir Dar.

Bahir Dar, the capital of the Amhara region, is located on the shore of Lake Tana (Ethiopia’s biggest lake) and the source of the Blue Nile river (one of the two headwaters of the Nile), and has developed into a domestic tourist destination for Ethiopians thanks to its picturesque scenery. Its palm-lined main boulevard is far more reminiscent of the Caribbean than anywhere else in landlocked, arid, Ethiopia; though unfortunately this attractiveness does not extend past the first block from the lake.

While the city is comfortable enough, Bahir Dar’s main attractions are located along its waterways. Due to earlier periods of religious strife, many of Ethiopia’s Christian monks established communities on the islands and peninsulas around Lake Tana, decorating these monasteries (which on the outside are simple and very African-looking with their round, thatched churches) with beautiful depictions of biblical scenes, including unique local stories included solely in the Ethiopian Bible or related texts. The source of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana also is a great site for wildlife viewing, adding an extra bonus to a boat trip to the lake monasteries (I visited only two, Ura Kidane Meret and Azuwa Maryam on the Zege Peninsula, though per the guidebooks differences between the dozen-odd monasteries on the lake are rather minor).

In the other direction from the city, the Blue Nile has an impressive waterfall, though at the time of my visit it was shrunken heavily due to the dry season (which lasts from around October-April), as well as dams built upstream. Though not far from the city, the trip to the falls provided a fascinating glimpse of Ethiopian rural life, as most of the country’s population is still engaged in agriculture and lives in small villages like those I passed through, where the dirt roads are used for livestock instead of vehicles, traditional clothing is still regularly worn, and school is secondary to helping in the fields, even for 5-6 year old children.

A very crowded and uncomfortable local minibus ride took me next to Gondar, another Amhara city even higher in the mountains, and the seat of Ethiopian power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most prominently under Emperor Fasilides. The presence of the emperor’s court in Gondar endowed the city with a profusion of castles and other historic architecture, most well preserved in the Royal Enclosure despite destruction from later wars and the general decline of the city’s importance after 1850 – Gondar is sometimes called the “Camelot of Africa” for its medieval appearance, though its crumbling palaces show far more signs of Indian and Middle Eastern influence than European. Still walled off from the rest of the city, wandering through the mostly-deserted grounds of the Royal Enclosure is strangely peaceful, with the lost opulence of the ancient emperors a stark contrast to the poverty and bustle of the modern city. While most of the rest of Gondar today is similar to any other Ethiopian city, a few historic sites are scattered elsewhere in the city, such as the Debre Berhan Selassie Church, allegedly saved from a marauding army by a miraculous swarm of bees. While leaving the city, I got an experience of Ethiopian’s approach to the new leadership, far different than the emperors of yore – a visit from the new prime minister drew thousands of marchers to welcome him to the city, waving the flags of Ethiopia and the Amhara region and posters of his face – clearly, despite the lack of democratic participation in his rise to power, the local people have great expectations for a more inclusive government under his direction. As an interesting side note, according to one would-be guide, many of Washington DC’s large Ethiopian population hail originally from Gondar.

Next I go back in time to even older capitals of Ethiopia in Lalibela and Aksum, but that’s for another blog.