In November and December of 2011, I did a five week trip to the Horn of Africa, visiting Ethiopia, Somaliland, Djibouti, South Sudan and Sudan. It was a memorable and exciting trip.
I visited Ethiopia first in 1972 at the age of 18, on my initial solo trip to Africa. This was during the late stages of the reign of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie. I then visited a colleague and friend posted to Addis Ababa in 1989 when I was posted to Lusaka, Zambia. This was during the late stages of the Marxist regime in power at that time, led by Colonel Miriam Mengistu. Colonel Mengistu was later to become a neighbour when I was working in Zimbabwe. In 1991, Robert Mugabe granted him a place of exile in Harare in the same Non-Aligned-Movement Conference housing development where CIDA had established some offices. My third visit was last November.
Addis Ababa and Ethiopia have changed dramatically in the last twenty years. For a country which once epitomized land degradation, suffering, famine and starvation, there is a palpable sense of growth, dynamism and rising living standards. Infrastructural improvements are visible throughout the country.
When I first arrived, after picking up visas in Addis, I headed with a friend to Dire Dawa, Harar and Jijiga and then across the border into Somaliland. When we returned to Ethiopia from Djibouti, I went up to Lalibela. I then went to South Sudan and Sudan and returned to Addis. Finally, I went across to Lake Tana, Gondar and then spent several days trekking up in the Simien Mountains. Ethiopia is emerging as an increasingly popular adventure destination.
The influence of China is rising significantly throughout Africa, and Ethiopia is no exception. The Chinese are heavily involved in the infrastructural improvements underway. In fact, the Ethiopian government is following the Chinese model of a repressive political system that, nevertheless, achieves high levels of economic growth.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are among the most impressive archaeological sites in the world. Built around 1000 years ago, it seems scarcely possible that these could have been constructed without divine intervention. Christianity has been a strong influence here since the fourth century AD and is widely practiced throughout the country.
Harar was a fascinating city, unlike any other in Ethiopia, with its own distinct culture and was vaguely reminiscent of Fez. Jijiga and eastern Ethiopia are ethnic Somali areas bearing more similarities to Somalia than anywhere else in Ethiopia. Lake Tana is a beautiful area, famed for its painted churches and monasteries, mainly accessible by boat tours from Dire Dawa, and for the nearby Blue Nile Falls.
Gondar is a particularly dynamic and prosperous city with a fascinating history. North of Gondar are the Simien Mountains with a topography like a scaled-up and slightly more fertile “one-sided” Grand Canyon. Access is controlled by the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters in Debark. My experience of the trek was that it was haphazardly organized, though it was more a matter of inconvenience for me rather than real hardship, and the scenery and topography more than made up for it. While trekking there, I climbed to the summit of Imet Gogo at 3926 metres, the highlight of my sojourn in the mountains.
Ethiopia is a very inexpensive country in which to travel, with a great and distinctive cuisine, a top-notch airline easing the logistics of moving around the country, a rapidly improving tourist infrastructure and, at least in my experience, a welcoming population. I personally think it is one of the most interesting countries in the world, and there is still much of the country that I have not seen.