To the world at large, Ethiopia is practically synonymous with famine and desert. So much so that its national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, regularly receives tactful enquiries about what, if any, food is served on their flights. This widespread misconception, regarding a country set in a continent plagued by drought and erratic rainfall, says much about the workings of the mass media. It says rather less about Ethiopia.
Contrary to Western myth, the elevated central plateau that covers half of Ethiopia’s surface area, and supports the vast majority of its population, is the most extensive contiguous area of fertile land in the eastern side of Africa. The deserts do exist, stretching from the base of the plateau to the Kenyan border and the Red Sea and Somali coast, but they are, as you might expect, thinly populated; they have little impact on the life of most Ethiopians – and they are most unlikely to be visited by tourists. To all intents and purposes, the fertile highland plateau is Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s fledgling tourist industry revolves around the richest historical heritage in sub-Saharan Africa. The town of Axum was for several centuries the centre of an ancient empire that stretched from the Nile River across the Red Sea to Yemen. The medieval capital of Lalibela boasts a cluster of monolithic rock-hewn churches regarded by many as the unofficial eighth wonder of the world. There is also Gondar, the site of five 17th-century castles built by King Fasil and his successors. And all around the country are little-visited monasteries and other rock-hewn churches, many of them more than 1,000 years old and still in active use.
Lalibela’s churches are one of the country’s greatest historical treasures © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
Although historical sites are the focal point of tourism in Ethiopia, they threaten to be swamped by the breathtaking scenery. Every bus trip in the Ethiopian Highlands is a visual treat, whether you are snaking into the 1km-deep Blue Nile Gorge, rolling past the sculpted sandstone cliffs and valleys of Tigray, undulating over the grassy moorland and cultivated fields of the central highlands, winding through the lush forests of the west and south, or belting across the Rift Valley floor, its acacia scrub dotted by extinct volcanoes, crumbling lava flows and beautiful lakes, and hemmed in by the sheer walls of the Rift Escarpment. Mere words cannot do justice to Ethiopia’s scenery.
Isolated from similar habitats by the fringing deserts, the Ethiopian Highlands have a remarkably high level of biological endemism. Large mammals such as the Ethiopian wolf, mountain nyala, Walia ibex and gelada monkey are found nowhere but the highlands, as are 30 of the 900-plus species of birds that have been recorded in the country. This makes national parks like Bale and Simien a paradise for natural history enthusiasts, as well as for the hikers and mule trekkers who visit them for their scenery.
Yet over a period of time, Ethiopia’s established tourist attractions become incidental to the thrill of just being in this most extraordinary country. The people of the highlands have assimilated a variety of African, Judaic and even Egyptian influences to form one of the most unusual and self-contained cultures on this planet. Dervla Murphy said in 1968 that ‘travelling in Ethiopia gives one the Orlando-like illusion of living through different centuries’. This remains the case: the independence of spirit which made Ethiopia the one country to emerge uncolonised from the 19th-century Scramble for Africa is still its most compelling attraction; even today, there is a sense of otherness to Ethiopia that is as intoxicating as it is elusive. Practically every tangible facet of Ethiopian culture is unique. Obscured by the media-refracted glare of the surrounding deserts, Ethiopia feels like the archetypal forgotten land.
Ethiopia confounds every expectation. Many people arrive expecting a vast featureless desert and human degradation, and instead find themselves overwhelmed by the country’s majestic landscapes and climatic abundance, and immersed in a culture infectiously besotted with itself and its history. While the rest of the world taps its feet, Ethiopia, I suspect, will always breakdance with its shoulders. And, in case you’re wondering, there’s really no need to pack sandwiches for the flight.