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Ethiopia - When and where to visit
Ethiopia shows a wide climatic variation, ranging from the peaks of Bale, which receive periodic snowfall, to regular daytime temperatures of over 50˚C in the Danakil Desert. As a rule, the central highlands have a temperate climate and average daytime temperature of 16˚C, belying their proximity to the Equator. The eastern lowlands and the far south are dry and hot. The western lowlands are moist and hot, making them the one part of the country that feels truly tropical. The southern Rift Valley, much of which lies at the relatively high altitude of 1,500m, is temperate to hot and seasonally moist.
The precipitation pattern in the northern and central highlands is that the bulk of the rain falls between mid June and early October. This pattern changes as you head further south: the rainy season in the Rift Valley generally starts and ends a few weeks earlier than in the highlands, while in South Omo most of the rain falls in March, April and May, and other parts of the south have two rainy seasons, falling either side of the highlands’ rainy season of July to September. Contrary to popular perceptions, most highland parts of Ethiopia receive a healthy average annual rainfall figure, with the far west being particularly moist – indeed much of the southwest receives an average annual rainfall in excess of 2,000mm.
The northeast highlands are much drier, and have a less reliable rainy season, than other highland parts of Ethiopia. Tigrai and parts of Amhara are prone to complete rainfall failure; this tends to happen about once every decade. It was such a rainfall failure that, exacerbated by tactics of the Mengistu government, led to the notorious famine of 1985. In normal years, however, the highlands become something of a mudbath during the rains, with an average of 1,000mm falling over two or three months. Fortunately, from a tourist’s point of view, rain tends to fall in dramatic storms that end as suddenly as they start, a situation that is infinitely more conducive to travel than days of protracted drizzle.
Ethiopia can be visited at any time of year. People are sometimes advised against travelling during the rainy season, from June until early October, but with Lalibela now being accessible all year through this is less of an issue than it used to be. Indeed, the rainy season has several advantages, among them that there are fewer tourists at popular sites such as Lalibela, and that the scenery is so much more impressive when the countryside is green and well watered. A lovely time of year is September through to early October, when the whole country is a riot of wild meskel flowers.
The most popular time to visit Ethiopia is between October and January, when the rains are over but the countryside is still quite green. Many travellers try to schedule their trip to coincide with important festivals such as Ethiopian New Year, Ethiopian Christmas, Timkat or Meskel. The European winter is also the best time for birds, as resident species are supplemented by large numbers of Palaearctic migrants.
One area where travel options are restricted during the rains is South Omo. The rains here typically fall in April and May, but they may run earlier or later, for which reason March and June are also probably best avoided, as are the short rains in October.
Itineraries are subjective things, dependent on how much time you have, your chosen or enforced style of travel, and your interests. So rather than prescribe a few specific itineraries, this section attempts to itemise what is and isn’t possible within the confines of a normal vacation period. Perhaps the most important single item of advice when it comes to travel in Ethiopia is to allocate your time realistically. You can, for instance, easily cover the four main attractions of the historical circuit by air in eight to ten days. You could also do it in five to seven days at a push, but if you were constrained to that sort of period, it would be more realistic and enjoyable to cut one of the four main sites from your itinerary. Much the same can be said for visitors bussing around the historical circuit. If you really wanted to, you could cover the main attractions in under two weeks, but only if you are prepared to have at least half your days consumed by long and often uncomfortable bus trips.
The historical circuit
Ethiopia’s main tourist focus is the well-defined historical circuit in the north. Visitors tend to travel in a clockwise loop from Addis Ababa, passing through the four established tourist centres of Bahir Dar (the base for visiting Lake Tana’s monasteries and Tis Abay Waterfall on the Blue Nile), Gondar, Axum and Lalibela.
By road, this loop covers a distance of more than 2,500km. Roads in the region have improved greatly in recent years, but many are still in poor repair, and pass through mountainous terrain that isn’t conducive to speed. In other words, travelling by bus or private vehicle is not realistic if you want to rush between sites. Fortunately, Ethiopian Airlines covers all the main towns on the historical circuit. Although internal flights are reasonably efficient, they will not necessarily run at times that allow you to do any significant sightseeing on the day you fly, and delays are commonplace. On this basis, it’s best to allow yourself a clear day between flights in every place you visit. This means that to visit all four major centres you need eight nights out of Addis. If you don’t have this sort of time, you could think about cutting Bahir Dar or Axum from the itinerary. On the other hand, with more time available, you could easily devote a second day to Axum or Bahir Dar, and any number of days to visiting rock-hewn churches in the Lalibela region (by mule or on foot from town).
Two other attractions on the historical loop that might be of interest to short-stay visitors are Simien Mountains National Park and the rock-hewn churches of Tigrai. The Simiens are visited from Gondar – you can reach the park headquarters at Debark in a morning by bus or taxi. The prime attractions here are spectacular scenery and the opportunity to see three of Ethiopia’s four endemic large mammal species. Travelling by car, allow at least two nights to see the Simiens properly. Hikers would need to set aside at least four days (including travel to or from Gondar), but six days – or even longer – would be better. The rock-hewn churches of Tigrai lie north of the regional capital of Mekele. The possibilities in this area are practically endless, ranging from visiting some of the more accessible churches over a day or two on public transport through to seven-day hikes or driving trips in the Gheralta area. All that need be said here is that Ethiopian Airlines fly to Mekele, though visiting from Axum is another viable option.
Touring the historical circuit by public transport is relatively straightforward. If you have more time than money, travelling by bus is much cheaper than flying on a day-by-day basis. But, because it will take much longer, the overall cost will be much the same. The advantages of bus travel are that it allows you to soak up the magnificent scenery and to visit more obscure places of interest. To do a full tour of the historical circuit would use up the best part of ten days on buses alone (two days less if you bypassed Lalibela at Woldia). Allowing for at least one full day at each of the major tourist attractions, and a few days’ rest here and there, anything much less than three weeks – four weeks if you have thoughts of hiking in the Simiens or exploring Tigrai in depth – would be heavy going.
If you don’t have this sort of time, two compromise options exist. One is to skip Axum and cut across from Gondar to Woldia which, if you wanted to see Lalibela, would still require almost a week of pure travel and a very tight minimum of ten days overall. A more sensible compromise might be to go as far as Axum by bus, then to fly back to Addis via Lalibela.
The south and east
The southern Rift Valley lake region is the most popular in Ethiopia after the historical circuit. There is, however, no single obvious circuit through the region – but there is no desperate need to think through your timing. Shashemene, the transport hub of the south, is only five or six hours from Addis by bus, and even from more dispersed spots like Harar, Arba Minch, Negele Borena or Goba, you are within a comfortable two days’ reach of the capital. In other words, travel in most of this region can be as organised or as whimsical as your temperament dictates.
If you veer towards organised travel, the best way to see a fair amount of the south is to join a tour or hire a vehicle and driver (in Ethiopia, tours and car hire generally amount to the same thing) through an Addis Ababa operator. Tours can be arranged to cater for most tastes, but generally you would be looking at two or three days to see a few Rift Valley lakes, and you could extend this by a day or two by appending either Awash or Nechisar National Park to your itinerary. To see South Omo properly, eight days is the absolute minimum duration for a round road trip from Addis Ababa.
A more whimsical approach is just that. You could spend weeks exploring the south and east and it would be silly to try to suggest a specific public transport itinerary. The one place in the south that should be singled out here is Bale National Park. Not only is this the one place in southern Ethiopia geared towards hiking, but it also offers the most important concentration of Ethiopia’s endemic animals. Unlike at Simien, you can see Bale’s endemic mammals easily without having to hike. Bale is also home to about half of Ethiopia’s endemic bird species, and most of these are easy to see in the area. Independent travellers should allow two days in each direction between Addis and Bale.
Off-the-beaten track travel
If you have only a short time in Ethiopia, common sense dictates that you should focus your attention on the places you really want to see. But if you have the luxury of a longer period of time, it is worth exploring some of Ethiopia’s less visited areas. You need not actually head ‘off the beaten track’ to do this – stopping along the beaten track can amount to the same thing. Ideas of this sort are scattered throughout, but Tigrai and its rock-hewn churches offer particularly rich pickings for travellers who want to take things slowly.
A couple of relatively quick off-the-beaten-track trips suggest themselves. One, if you are visiting Bale, is to return to Shashemene via Dola Mena and Negele Borena. A good overnight trip from Addis is to the wonderful but little-visited cluster of historical sites around Melka Awash. And then there is the mother of off-the-beaten-track routes, the loop west through the forested mountains around Nekemte and Jimma to the remote river port at Gambella, a ten–14-day round bus trip.