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Exotic and otherworldly, your first taste of Ethiopia will seem as if you’ve been dropped down Alice’s rabbit hole and entered Wonderland. Whether you’ve come to see the ancient monasteries of Lake Tana and Tigray, to get lost within the mazy red rock tunnels of Lalibela, or hike across Africa’s rooftop surrounded by packs of Gelada baboons, Ethiopia will not disappoint.

Enchanting and bewildering in equal measures – even the way they measure time here is different to the rest of the world – Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most interesting countries. Its landscape swoops from the dizzying heights of the jaggedly carved Simien Mountains down to the sulphur fumaroles and lunar-like landscape of the Danakil Depression, 100m (330 ft) below sea level.

It is also one of the continent’s greatest cultural destinations. The fascinating tribal world of the Lower Omo Valley is an ethnographer’s paradise where age-old animist customs and traditions still play a role in daily life. Even in the cities the ancient rituals of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christian Church govern the routines of many.

Throughout its long, and often bloody, history, Ethiopia’s feuding fiefdoms have risen, flourished and fallen, leaving remnants of their glory still able to be admired today. Gonder has its fairytale-style castles, Aksum its mysterious, mammoth stelae, Lalibela its rock-hewn network of churches, and Harar its Arabian-influenced walled city. There are nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites spread throughout the country, eight of them cultural; denoting the vast number of historic treasures that can be seen.

Although many people come to Ethiopia specifically for its ancient highlights,

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  • this country is home to some of Africa’s most dramatic scenery and a fair whack of wildlife. Hiking in the Simien Mountains, shadowed by 100-strong troops of Gelada baboons and trekking the Bale Mountains with your eyes peeled for the rare Ethiopian wolf are well-known activities. Still, there are abundant other opportunities to get up-close-and-personal with nature. Crocodile spotting on Lake Chamo will make you wonder who is eyeing up whom. Elephant tracking in Babille will have you holding your breath when you finally find the herd. And helping the Hyena men of Harar feed the slinking packs of hyenas at the city gates on a moonlit night will set the hairs of your neck upright.

    Convoluted and at times frustrating, Ethiopia isn’t the easiest country to travel in. The poverty of the countryside can be uncomfortably confronting. Some of the dusty and pot-hole ridden road journeys are a lesson in bone-jarring terror themselves (and if you’re travelling by bus you’ll have to contend with organised-chaos as a day-to-day trial). If you’re up for a challenge though, this nation will have no trouble winning you over in the end. Once you’ve fallen under the spell of the hypnotic rhythms of priestly chanting during a church service, viewed the Great Rift Valley’s deep slash from high above on an escarpment, attempted (and failed) to dance the shoulder-wobbling iskista dance, and finally mastered how to tell the time Ethiopian-style you’ll see why this country casts a spell on so many who journey here.

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