Story and photos by John Coyne
Rimbaud House photo by Haiying Huang
Ethiopia, a place of beautiful land and people
When I arrived in Ethiopia in the fall of 1962, the Empire’s tourism slogan was “Thirteen Months of Sunshine.” That was accurate in that the Ethiopian year consists of thirteen months, but overly optimistic on the weather (since the rainy season lasts at least four months). A little over a year ago, however, the slogan was changed to “Land of Origins,” to highlight that Ethiopia is the birthplace of humankind, the country where anthropologists discovered the bones of Lucy, the earliest remains of human ancestors ever found. Ethiopia is also the home of the wild coffee plant, Arabica; the Nechsar Nightjar, the rarest bird in the world, first discovered in 1990; and of the Blue Nile, the longest river on the planet. And it is the depository of what some believe to be the lost Biblical Ark of the Covenant, which is stored in St. Mary of Zion Church in Axum.
Today, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism Director, Ato (Mr.) Gezahagn Abate, can correctly say, “The current motto best expresses Ethiopia as a country endowed with marvelous cultural, natural and man-made historical happenings."
Beyond its historical importance, Ethiopia abounds in natural wonders that have endured for centuries and now await the intrepid traveler.
It is best to arrive in Ethiopia at the end of September and the “Big Rains.” Mid-October to January is the peak season for Ethiopia. The fields are covered with yellow Meskal flowers and the hillsides and mountains are thick green with wild grass. It is a perfect time to explore the national parks and villages and town beyond the famous historical sites.
A Few Cities To See
Harar is perhaps Ethiopia’s most famous city, one that predates Addis Ababa by hundreds of years. It was settled the seventh century by an Arabic community, followers of the Prophet Muhammad led by Sheikh Hussein. Here in the stone-walled inner city, a district known as Gey Ada (City of Saints), is a maze of narrow alleys that wind past 83 mosques, 102 shrines and many historical buildings.
It was Harar that explorer Richard Burton first visited in 1855, even though he feared he’d be killed, since Harar was closed to non-Muslims. Thirty years later, in 1880, French poet Arthur Rimbaud came to Harar and lived there happily for 11 years as a very successful trader. Harar is also where Emperor Haile Selassie grew up and was schooled by Jesuit teachers.
Arthur Rimbaud Museum
While this two-story building claims to have been Rimbaud’s home in Harar, it seems more likely that he may have lived at this location, but not in the grand merchant’s house that currently occupies the site. In 2000, that home, constructed a decade or so after the poet passed away in Marseilles, became a museum honoring Rimbaud; on display are photographs that the poet took in Ethiopia while running guns from Europe that he sold to the Emperor Menelik.
Abdela Sherif Harari City Museum
This museum, established in 2007, is well worth a visit just to see the birthplace of Emperor Haile Selassie. The two-story wide-balconied mansion, built in the late 1890s, displays many century-old artifacts of Harari culture, from musical instruments to household artifacts.
Harar Jugol is the interior walled city of Harar, built in the 1560s and still accessible by five traditional gates. It is filled with mosques and shrines that you can visit, or you may choose to simply wander through the labyrinth of alleyways and discover a world seemingly untouched by time.
Hyena Man of Harar
In decades past, the gates of Harar would be closed at night to keep the hyenas from slipping inside the walls and stealing children off the streets. Now the hyenas are a tourist attraction: Outside the gates, travelers and some curious locals gather to watch one or another “Hyena Man” coax the beasts out of the darkness with whistles and loud calls. I first saw a Hyena Man in the sixties; the ritual today is the same as it was then. Only the feeding site has changed. It is now about 5km outside the city wall. Arrive at dusk to see the show. First you’ll see a pair of yellow-green eyes peering from the shadows. Then another and another. The animals pace back and forth in the dark, lunging at each other, snarling. They hide in the night until the hyena man lures them into the light with a hunk of rancid meat. They leave the darkness and scramble for the food.
As the show progresses, the Hyena Man will eventually hold a piece of meat in his mouth and taunt the animals to come closer and take it. And they will. Later he will invite anyone in the crowd to feed the hyenas by holding a stick with food at the end, or if someone is particularly brave, to hold the stick in your teeth and wait for a hyena to seize the meat. It’s a show you won’t see on Broadway.
In the Sixties, when I was in the Peace Corps, I would travel the roads of Ethiopia in a Land Rover to visit Volunteers on the gravel road the Italians built after Mussolini invaded the country in 1935. Called the Dessie Road, it reached farther north, into Mekele, the regional capital of Tigrai province. Once a backwater, Mekele today has modern high rises and a thriving population of 300,000.
The city does have significant historical sites and is within easy driving distance of historical towns such as Adwa, Axum and Adigrat. For that reason, Mekele is a perfect place to pause and relax and plan the next tour, whether it is to the rock-hewn churches of central Tigrai or to the Danakil Depression, a hot, surreal location where three tectonic plates meet.
Mekele has its own historical treasures, buildings dating back to the 1870s and Emperor Yohannes IV. His palace, for example, is now a museum. There are also the churches of Takle Haymanot, Medhane Alem and Kidane Mihret, all built in the 1870s. The city remembers its history and waits to be rediscovered.
To the east of the Tigraian highland, and on the southern edge of the Rift Valley that divides the country, and at the foot of the Harar Mountains, is Dire Dawa, the second largest city in Ethiopia and my favorite. Starting in 1902, one could travel from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa by train, on a French- made and -operated “littorina” that ran twice weekly (taking all day) down into the Rift and across the desert all the way to Djibouti and the Red Sea. Several years ago the train ceased operation and today a new railroad is being built with Chinese investment at a cost of over 4 billion dollars.
Until that’s completed, you can reach Dire Dawa by air (Ethiopian Airlines runs daily flights) or by car or bus (it’s a day’s drive over good roads). Dire Dawa is really two cities, divided by the Dachata River (which is usually dry). South of the river is the old Islamic town, with its maze of twisting streets and Arab-style houses, their pastel walls weathered to a rainbow of soft colors; to the north are the quiet, shady, tree-lined streets that evoke an old French colonial village. Dire Dawa has recently become an industrial center, with a population of half a million, leading some tourists to find it lacking in history and charm. But others, including me, love the slow paced and relaxed atmosphere of this city at the edge of the desert.
Trekking & Sightseeing
Simien Mountains National Park
Over millions of years, erosion in the Ethiopian plateau created the spectacular scenery of the Simien Mountains: jagged mountain peaks, precipitous cliffs and deep gorges of such tremendous natural beauty that the area is often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Africa. Leaving from Addis Ababa and going north, you can reach the Simien Mountains from the town of Debark, a roadside town two hours north of Gondar.
Simien Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, partly because it is home to rare and globally-threatened species such as Gelada baboons, Ethiopian wolves, and the iconic Walia ibex. Over 180 species of birds have been sighted in the park and the mountains are noted for cliff-nesting birds of prey, such as the Lammergeyer.
My first venture into the mountains was with students from the village of Debark. I was visiting a friend who taught secondary school science and geography in this village and he would take his students for field trips into the hills. At that time, the Simien Mountains were not officially a park. And Debark was a roadside town that no one visited. Now that the mountains are a UNESCO site, the town of Debark has more than 80,000 people, and the Simien Mountains National Park office is located here.
It is not possible to hike Simien without an armed scout, whether you are on foot on a vehicle. Most people travel there on all-inclusive hikes and visit from October to April, when the landscape is truly spectacular.
Simien is a park you want to explore on foot, but if you are on a tight schedule there is a road from Debark that goes deep into the mountains.
Check out the national park’s official website: www.simienmountains.org
Travel south from Addis Ababa and you’ll find another world. No ancient historical sites or lost cities, but deep in the Rift Valley you’ll find a land of lakes, semi-arid plains, and abundant wildlife—in other words, the Africa of Tarzan movies. While there are some jungles, most of the green landscape is filled with forests and lakes. Here you’ll find the ancient stone-walled village of Konso and Bale Mountains National Park. The Rift Valley is also the home of tribal peoples such as the Mursi, famous for their remarkable lip plates.
Bale Mountains National Park
Central to any sightseeing is this game park on the Sanetti Plateau. Its mountain range is the most extensive in the southern part of the country, and has the Sof Omar Caves, the Holy Shrine of Dire Sheik Hussein and the Manyate Coffee Village. It is also the top wildlife-viewing bird destination in Ethiopia, home of 16 bird species whose range is confined to Ethiopia. Here, also, is the home of the Ethiopian wolf, mountain Nyala, and Menelik’s bushbuck.
The park’s size and elevation gives rise to its unique ecosystems, which include afro alpine moorland (the largest in Africa), Juniper-Hagenia woodlands, grasslands, ericaceous forest and the country’s second largest intact forest, the Harenna, which constitutes about 50 percent of the park.
This park supports amazing biodiversity and has been called the world’s most endemic terrestrial habitat, meaning that much of the life found here is only found here. It is #1 of 34 Conservation International’s biodiversity hotspots and is listed as the 4th best birding destination in Africa by the African Bird Club.
The Park also has the largest remaining populations of Ethiopian Wolves, Mountain Nyala and African wild dogs and lions, which can often be spotted by visitors. What is also great about Bale is that it can be easily explored by car, and can be reached in four hours from Addis Ababa.
Rift Valley Lakes
This cluster of seven lakes is a treasure house of birds and wildlife. Of the lakes, Ziway is best for birdwatching, and Lake Langano for swimming (because it is the only lake in the country free of bilharzia, a parasitic disease carried by snails). In the five years that I lived in Ethiopia, I would often camp on the shore of Langano, which is less than a mile from the main highway that bisects the Rift Valley, north to south. In those days, there were no lodges. We gathered driftwood off the sandy beach and built a fire to cook and keep animals away as we slept. There is absolutely nothing more majestic, awe inspiring or restful than to fall asleep under a blanket of African stars.
The deepest part of the Afar Depression, the Danakil Desert has existed for millennia, but only recently has it become a tourist attraction. Attractions include the salt-encrusted Lake Afrera, the Erta Ale volcano, and the hot-springs field at Dallol. Also, it was in this Afar region that the skeleton of Lucy was discovered.
But the Danakil is not for everyone. The region comes with a lot of “Wild West” stories. For example, it’s said that as recently as the 1930s, young men of the Danakil would greet male strangers by lopping off their testicles, a ritual that proved the young lopper was strong enough to marry.
You needn’t fear that happening now, but there are other issues. As recently at 2012, gunmen attacked a tour group at Erta Ale volcano. Today, all tourists travel to the Danakil with a local guide and a police escort.
Where to Stay
Harar Ras Hotel
Accommodations in Harar are very limited, with only three good hotels. The Ras Hotel is small, not new, and located outside the city walls. It has been refurbished, but not well enough to turn it into a first-class establishment. That said, it’s pleasant enough, with an open-air restaurant that serves local dishes.
Across from the Ras Hotel it a military base with a really nice bar and seating in a beautiful garden. I went with Ethiopian friends, though, and I’m not sure if foreigners can get in alone. They’re strict about no cameras (I put mine in my bag and agreed not to take it out after a ten-minute argument about leaving it at the entrance).
Planet International Hotel
Located near the center of the city, this 9-story hotel is the most upmarket building in town (even though it does have a motel-style feel to it). It offers the normal amenities, from Wi-Fi to a spa and restaurant.
This Indian-owned hotel is centrally located,(not that Dire Dawa is very big) with a fine Indian restaurant and a swimming pool.
Located at an elevation of 3,260 meters, this is the highest hotel in Africa. It offers 20 traditional Ethiopian tukul-style rooms and good food. The lodge organizes treks by foot and on horseback. www.simiens.com
Bale Mountains Park
Bale Mountains Lodge
This is the best lodge in all of Ethiopia. Located in Harenna Forest, it just opened in 2014. Knowledgeable guides are available to take you anywhere in the Park. The en-suite rooms are spaced around the property to ensure a sense of privacy and take advantage of the views. www.balemountainlodge.com
This small, tranquil lodge is tucked away on the southeast shore of Lake Langano. The name “bishangardi” means “good water” in the local Oromo language. This Lodge is perfect for travelers who want to be close to nature. You can hike, swim, birdwatch or seek out hippos by boat on the lake itself. www.bishangari.com
To read the First Part of the Ethiopia story click here.
Ethiopia by Philip Briggs, 7th Edition published in 2015 (The Globe Pequot Press). In addition to up-to-date information, this guide book is crammed with historical data and tidbits. www.bradtguides.com
The Map Addis from Addis Guides. 1st Edition 2016. www.mapofaddis.com
Overland Ethiopia Tours
Grand Holidays Ethiopia Travel & Tours
Dinknesh Ethiopia Tour
Boundless Ethiopia Tours PLC
Abeba Tours Ethiopia
SORA Tours Ethiopia
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