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Trip Report Ethiopia Trip Report - January 2010

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I spent 18 days in Ethiopia in January 2010. There is relatively little information here about Ethiopia, so I hope that this trip report will be useful to those planning a trip to this fascinating and beautiful country. As such, I provided more rather than less detail about my 7-night solo tour to the south and my 4-night trip to the north.

I chose to travel to Ethiopia in part to visit a college friend who is living in Addis Ababa. Because I was staying with a friend, my experience in Addis was focused on spending time with her and her 2-year old daughter, and less on traditional tourist activities. However, I got a chance to visit the National Museum, which has a nice exhibit on early human evolution (including a faux Lucy fossil). The Lucy Restaurant next door to the museum has a lovely garden and good food. I enjoyed exploring Mt. Entoto and the market near the post office (tourist-oriented but an efficient place to shop). I was also lucky enough to be in Addis for Timket (epiphany), and to participate in the holiday. One of the Timket celebrations occurred just down the street from my friend’s house, which was fantastic during the days when I could come and go as I pleased, but a bit miserable during the nights when we learned that Timket drumming and chanting lasts ALL night for 2 straight nights. On my last day in Addis, my friend treated me to a luxurious massage at the Boston Spa, which was a lovely treat before getting on an 18-hour plane ride (be sure to tell your masseuse not to massage your chest, unless you want what my friend calls the “special massage”).

7-Night Solo Tour to the Southern Rift Valley (Monday Jan. 11 – Monday Jan. 18)

I arranged this tour in advance through Abeba Tours (http://www.abebatoursethiopia.com/). I wrote with a woman named Tania to plan my trip, and found her to be very easy to work with. I was impressed with her honesty about everything from costs to road conditions, and found the prices to rent a car/driver to be competitive. I paid for everything else separately, including hotels, food, and entrance/guide fees for parks, and this was much more cost effective than an all-inclusive package. Tania planned my tour around my interests (I’m a biologist with a specialty in primates), and I was very happy with the final itinerary. I would definitely recommend this company to others.

I cannot, however, recommend my driver/guide, Amare. I always felt safe with his driving, whether on highways or on the worst roads, and he had a good knowledge of the culture, restaurants, etc. However, we had some significant communication problems, which were quite frustrating at times. Additionally, on the second day of my tour he tried to kiss me, and on several occasions he tried to get me to help him get a visa to the US, once even offering to pay me to do so. I expect these types of things to happen when I travel, but not with a tour guide/driver. Therefore, while I think that Amare might be a good guide for a small group or solo male traveler, I cannot recommend him for a solo woman.

One note: The company will work to help you find others to travel with to help save on costs – they even have a place on their website dedicated to travelers who are looking to share a car. I had a last minute opportunity to cancel my tour and join a solo male traveler to the Omo Valley. I decided to keep my tour, and I was happy with the decision – while Omo is the more traditional tourist destination in the south, I am uncomfortable with ethno-tourism (which some tour companies call a “photo safari”). Travelers that I met in the south confirmed that Omo was very tourist-oriented; one man called it Disneyland. I’m sure that it’s a fascinating region to visit, but I was happier with a nature-oriented itinerary.

Day 1 – We (my driver and I) left Addis in the morning and headed south towards Awassa. Along the way, we stopped at Lake Ziway to see the birdlife. I saw many water birds here (Marabou storks, etc.), but I saw all these birds again later in the trip, and would probably not recommend Lake Ziway to future travelers. Next stop: Abiatta-Shala National Park. There are fewer flamingos on lake Abiatta now, but I still found it to be beautiful and serene. The landscape is stunning, and sprinkled with ostriches and gazelle. We stopped at Shalom Juice in Shashamene for fresh juice before heading to Awassa, where I spent the night at the Wabe-Shebelle II hotel. The hotel has shabby but clean 70’s style rooms and unreliable hot water, but the view is unmatched. The hotel sits right on the lake, and there are monkeys running around everywhere (be careful, they will steal your soda as you sit by the lake enjoying the sunset). I happily watched the vervet (grivet) monkeys, but couldn’t find the black and white colobus monkeys. The food at the hotel restaurant is decent and reasonably priced (50 birr for a 3-course dinner).

Day 2 – After breakfast (which was included), we headed to the Awassa fish market, but the market appeared to be getting a late start that morning. So instead we started the morning with a boat ride on lake Awassa to see the hippos. You have to haggle for the cost of the boat, and prices seem to have gone up with higher fuel costs. But there are beautiful views from the lake, and the hippos are shy but charming. When we returned from hippo watching, the fish market was in full swing. You can watch the men gathering their catch from the nets, and then can go into a concrete structure to see the fish being processed (filleted, de-skinned, etc.) and sold. As promised in the new Lonely Planet guide, a young boy removes the fillets from their skins by using his teeth, and can de-skin around 20-30 fillets per minute! Next, we drove north/west to the Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary, where I saw the endemic Swayne’s Hartebeast, warthogs, and oribi. We ran into some park scouts who had just seen a jaguar but, alas, it was long gone. People accustomed to African Safaris may find this location to be quiet and disappointing, but I enjoyed being a bit off the beaten path. I also had a great time visiting with local people in villages near the park – tourists don’t normally stop here, and we had a lot of fun taking photos and looking at the images on the tiny camera screen. After a late lunch of fried beef in a clay pot at the Chelata restaurant in Shashemene, I returned to spend the night in Awassa at the same hotel, where I finally found the colobus monkeys eating in a tree near my cabin.

A note about food: I am a vegetarian/pescetarian at home, and found it difficult to maintain this diet in Ethiopia outside of Addis and major towns. On Wednesday and Fridays, most restaurants observe “fasting days” which are completely vegan, so you can get plenty of vegetarian food. But on non-fasting days, many restaurants ONLY serve meat. More tourist-oriented places always have at least a few pasta options or a fish option. Shiro (a hot chickpea paste with injera) is a good item to request if you are trying to maintain a vegetarian diet. Overall, food is very inexpensive in Ethiopia, and most of my meals cost less than $2-4. You can get Coke products everywhere, even in the smallest of towns.

Day 3 – We got an early start to Bale Mountain National Park, which requires driving on notoriously terrible roads. They are currently in the process of paving the road to Dinsho, so in the future the trip to Bale may be significantly easier. As of January, the paved section of road lasted intermittently for only the first ~1.5 hours, after which it was pretty slow going. I was happy to see that there aren’t many sharp drops, and most of the road has “guard rails,” i.e., piles of rocks or dirt break down lanes. The views from the road are absolutely stunning, and as you approach Dinsho, you can see animals (warthogs, nyala, bushbuck, etc.) from the road. I got to Bale in time for an afternoon hike around the lodge, where it is relatively easy to see animals. Despite warnings, I actually found the Dinsho lodge to be quite charming with its ski chalet layout and musty animal skins. I stayed in an inexpensive dorm room, and the cot was clean and comfortable enough, with sufficient piles of blankets (that you will need once the sun sets and temperatures plummet). A local woman will make you delicious meals on request (check the price lists on the walls – she will try to get more money from you), and you can purchase firewood for the indoor fire pit. The lodge has also recently installed hot water heaters in the showers.

Day 4 – Despite some complications with guides in the morning, we managed to get a reasonably early start, and headed by car to Gaysay Valley (you can also go by pony). We planned to do a morning and afternoon hike, but ended up doing the entire hike all at once, finishing around 2:00. For lunch we ate questionable fried egg sandwiches that we picked up from a “restaurant” in Dinsho. This was a fantastic hike – I saw many animals (mountain Nyala, Menelik’s bushbuck, grey duiker, reedbuck, warthogs, a hyena, olive baboons, black and white colobus monkeys, and many bird species) and no other tourists. I spent the afternoon relaxing and talking with the eclectic members of a 20-person overland group that had rolled in on a giant truck the previous night.

Day 5 – We left Bale early, and I was happy to find that driving downhill was faster than going up. After a stop in Shashamene for lunch, I arrived in the early afternoon at the Bishangari Eco-Lodge (my splurge for the trip). Bishangari is beautiful and peaceful. I was the only guest that night, but things are so spread out that I can’t imagine Bishangari would ever feel crowded. Although the brown lake water is safe for swimming, it doesn’t look particularly inviting, so I opted for bird watching and beer drinking in the shade. There is a charming bar in a giant fig tree, and you can see colobus monkeys and baboons frolicking in the surrounding branches. In the afternoon, my driver took me to a field behind the hotel to watch the baboons eat in the late-afternoon sunlight. At night, the dining area is festooned with lanterns, which create a charming safari vibe, but the food is hugely overpriced by Ethiopian standards. I stayed in the Tukul accommodations (small, local style huts) that share a common bathroom. I got lost between the bathroom and my tukul (all tukuls look the same in the dark!), but otherwise had a stress-free evening.

Day 6 – In the morning, I went on a 2-hour bird trek with Bishangari’s resident bird guide. Joaquin is incredibly talented. Despite having lost one eye to cataracts, he can spot the smallest bird from 30 meters away, and he knows every birdcall and every species’ Latin name. We saw over 40 species of bird, many of which were endemic to Ethiopia, as well as hippos relaxing in Lake Langano. After a lovely (included) breakfast, we wound our way out of Bishangari, following the yellow and white tree markers and trying not to hit stray goats or children asking for money and pens. After lunch at the Safari hotel, we arrived at Awash National Park around 3 pm. The guide we were assigned (Adam) was fantastic – friendly, knowledgeable, and a strong English speaker. We visited the Awash waterfall and the impressive gorge, and saw oryx, lesser kudu, warthogs, olive baboons, vervet monkeys, dik dik, soemmering gazelle, leopard tortoise, crocodiles, and an Abyssinian Hare. The small 1-room museum is locally managed, and while it is not too impressive, a lot of care has been put into its upkeep. I gave the manager a small tip for showing me around, and he beamed with pride. You can also visit with Dolo, the rescued male lion who lives in a cage nearby. We drove out of the park in the fading light. I spent the night at Hotel Genet in the town of Awash – the hotel has a new building with clean rooms, mosquito nets, and lukewarm water. The restaurant across the dirt courtyard serves tasty food.

Day 7 – We got an early start (6 am) to maximize morning animal viewing; I was intent on seeing the Hamadryas baboons, so we drove toward their habitat near the hot springs in the north of the park. As we started the 30 km drive, the sun was just beginning to rise above the horizon. When we arrived at the hot spring area, we saw a large herd of waterbuck (including 2 babies!) across the marshy field. The animals were timid, but tolerated our presence once we were out of the car. Our guide (Alberto) spotted a large troop of hamadryas baboons (~220 individuals) at the top of the cliff, and helped me to climb up to get a better view. Of course, after we got to the top, the baboons decided to climb back down to the plains below, so we followed. I spent over two hours watching these magnificent animals and chatting with a researcher. The monkeys are well habituated, and will tolerate you being quite close. I shared some cookies with a local Afar girl, and on the way out of the park I spotted a group of bat-eared foxes. An incredible morning! We headed back in the direction of Addis, stopping for lunch at a small local restaurant. I spent my final night at the Sodere Hot Spring resort, which is run down, overpriced, and not worth a visit. I decided that being the only farinji at the pool was more attention than I could handle, and spent most of the afternoon watching vervet monkeys from my balcony.

Day 8 – After breakfast (an included traditional Ethiopian buffet), we drove back to Addis. I returned to the city just in time for Timket – the streets were decorated with yellow, red, and green flags, and people draped in white fabric loitered in the streets.

Debre Libanos Day Trip

Being a primatologist, I really wanted to see the gelada baboons, which are endemic to Ethiopia. I learned that there is a spot ~110 km north of Addis where you can see the monkeys, so I organized a day trip (7 am to 2 pm) through our tour guide to the north (see below). My friend and her daughter were supposed to join me, but when the car arrived there were no seatbelts in the back seat for strapping in the car seat, so I went alone. We arrived in Debre Libanos and made a quick visit to the local church and the cave above the church where a saint used to pray on one leg (I never found out why…). Next we headed off to find the monkeys. We parked at a restaurant/hotel, and walked down a path along a beautiful gorge towards the Portuguese bridge. Both my driver and the guide we picked up didn’t really know where to look, but a local farmer pointed us in the right direction, and we soon came upon several troops of geladas. The males in particular are amazing creatures, with mane-like hair and huge canines. I was in monkey heaven! I was able to spend over an hour watching the baboons, which were nice enough to pose majestically for me on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the gorge. Debre Libanos is absolutely worth the trip if you want to see the gelada baboons but don’t have time to go to the Simian Mountains.

4-Night Trip to Bahir Dar and Lalibela (Thursday Jan. 21 – Monday Jan. 25)

For our tour to the north, my friend arranged an all-inclusive (minus food) tour using a recommended local tour guide named Afa (http://www.elijahtour.com/index.html). Overall everything went smoothly, although we had some confusion over the 4-wheel drive car we were supposed to have (but didn’t) in Lalibela. We flew with Ethiopian Airlines to save time. I had heard horror stories of flights delayed for many hours, but we had no trouble with our flights. We had some trouble booking our flights and finding reasonably priced hotels, due to the high season and traveling at the tail end of Timket, but Afa was able to sort everything out.

Our first stop was Bahir Dar. We arrived around 9 am, and checked in at the Blue Nile Hotel. The hotel was clean and had hot water, but did not have good sound insulation (we heard some questionable comings and goings around 2 am and 4 am). After a quick breakfast, we left for a boat tour of the monasteries on Lake Tana. Some of the monasteries do not allow women, but your boat guide should know which ones. We visited three monasteries – Mendaba Medhane Alem, Narga Selassie, and Debre Maryam - and saw the origin of the Blue Nile (including more hippos!). The monasteries were quite interesting, but I particularly enjoyed how friendly and welcoming the monks were. The monk at the first monastery took the time to show us his various treasures, and offered us a taste of his homemade Timket beer and some shiro and holy injera. In the afternoon, after lunch at the Dib Anbessa Hotel restaurant (with its bizarre wood carvings and ill-fitting revolving door), we drove up past the palace to get a bird’s eye view of Bahir Dar. We had a nice dinner at the Papyrus Hotel restaurant – they didn’t have many of the items on the menu, but the food was good.

On our second day in Bahir Dar we visited the Blue Nile Falls, which are very pretty even in the dry season. We took the short way in (by boat) but decided to hike out. It takes around 90 minutes, and is a beautiful walk with views of the falls (although you will have to cross a small stream – there are men there who will hold your hand and carry your shoes, whether you want them to or not, for a small fee). There are many people selling fabrics and other souvenirs around the falls, and they are quite aggressive, particularly near the entrance office. On the way back to Bahir Dar, we passed a man on a bicycle carrying a sheep on his back – it has proved to be the most entertaining photo that I took in Ethiopia. After lunch at Blue Jayez, a reasonably priced restaurant with local food and pasta, we explored the market, the tourist market (mostly leather products), and walked along the lake path. The Lonely Planet book warns that the path is a prime place for harassment, but we didn’t have any trouble. In the evening we stopped at the Balageru Cultural Club to hear local music. The music was good, but we didn’t entirely understand what was happening, and after my friend got the Ethiopian version of a lap dance, we decided to retire to our hotel.

We left for Lalibela in the morning. While Bahir Dar is a large town, Lalibela has more the feel of a village. We spent the day visiting the 11 rock-hewn churches in town. The entrance fee has gone up to 300 birr per person; they will also try to get you to hire a shoe-man (who will help you take your shoes on and off for 50-100 birr), but you obviously don’t need this. The churches are amazing, particularly St. George (although by the end of the day I’ll admit that I was growing tired of churches). Rumor has it that the church carpets are a good way to pick up fleas, but we did ok by going in barefoot. We had lunch at Seven Olives, which appears to be the best food in town, and visited the Saturday market, which would be a good place to buy a goat (but not a souvenir). We stayed at the Lal hotel, which has an airport van and a series of new tukul rooms. The rooms are charming, but the bathroom is a bit sketchy. The food there is not particularly good, but there is live music in the bar.

On our second day in Lalibela, we opted to visit to two cave churches. The first, Yemrehanna Kristos church, is located around 45 km from Lalibela among beautiful mountains. Even thought the final 12 km of road are terrible, it’s definitely worth the trip. The views are stunning, and the church itself was built before the rock-hewn churches in town. There are 5,000 skeletons behind the church in the cave – watch your step (particularly since you will be barefoot)! In the afternoon, we visited the Na'Akuto La 'Ab cave church near Lalibela. It’s a charming little church with a wealth of treasures (crosses, books, etc.). If you want to buy a local souvenir, the women and children make captivating little sculptures of lions and priests and tukuls using clay found behind the village.

Overall, I had an incredible trip in Ethiopia – it was a great balance of nature and history. I particularly enjoyed traveling in the southern part of the country, which has significantly fewer tourists. In the south, people were typically curious and friendly. They asked me a lot of questions, and generally had warm feelings about America and Obama (whom they adore). The people in the north were equally friendly, but there was often a feeling that people wanted something from you. With so many tourists passing through, it can be hard to see the natural Ethiopia through the haze of tourism. It’s worth trying, though, because Ethiopia is a fascinating and welcoming country.

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