Ethiopia generally has two seasons: the long dry season from September to February and the rainy season from March to August.
It is generally cold in the mornings and evenings and cool in the day, with annual temperatures averaging 16 deg C in the highlands and 28 deg C in the lowlands.
Addis, at about 2,590m, is the third highest capital in the world and is pleasantly cool all year long.
I spent the afternoon at the national museum where I got to see its biggest draw: Lucy, the partial skeleton of what is believed to be the oldest ancestor of humanity, discovered in the Awash Valley, west of Addis, in 1974. Incidentally, Lucy got her name from the Beatles classic Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds which was playing at the archeological campsite after anthropologist Donald Johanson and his team returned from their find.
Another highlight in Addis is the merkato, the largest open-air market in the continent. There are some 7,100 vendors selling everything from spices to squawking chickens to electrical goods.
There is even a huge recycling station at one corner. Chaotic and full of people every day of the week, the merkato is a sight to behold.
My tour of Addis ended with a drive up Mount Entoto, the highest peak overlooking the sprawling city. The mountain is densely covered by eucalyptus trees which came from Tasmania early in the 20th century. The drive was not only scenic but filled with the scent from the trees.
When I sent my brother a photo I’d taken at the Blue Nile Falls, one of the main attractions in Bahar Dar, a town some 320km north of Addis, he annoyingly insisted that I’d sent him a photo of a painting or postcard.
It was that picture-perfect beautiful.
Known in Amharic (the national language) as Tis Issat (which translates to “smoking water”), the Blue Nile Falls is a sight to behold. It is known as smoking water because of the spray that looks like smoke coming from beneath as the water from the river tumbles more than 45m over a sheer basalt cliff. Quite a spectacle, especially combined with the surrounding dense forest.
Some of the travellers who made the trek with me commented that the falls were less spectacular than the Victoria falls in Zimbabwe or the Niagara Falls in North America. While this is partially true, it is chiefly because much of the water from the Blue Nile has been diverted to a power dam.
Although the Blue Nile Falls is undoubtedly smaller in volume, its allure is second to none and well worth the hour-long drive, five-minute boat ride and half-hour trek to it’s periphery.
The Blue Nile gets its water from Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, which was where I spent the morning. Lake Tana is home to one of Bahar Dar’s other attractions – the 16th and 17th century monasteries located on islands situated on the lake.
I visited the Ura Kidane Mihret on Zege Peninsula, Lake Tana. It is one of the most-visited monasteries in the area. Its most striking feature are the colourful paintings that cover every inch of the clay walls. Done in the 16th century, the paintings depicting biblical stories and folklore have withstood the test of time, with the colours still bright and vibrant.
As the deacon of the church was relating the history of the monastery and the stories behind the paintings, I could hear the chanting in the background of teenage boys in the monastery who were in training to become priests.
NORTH AND SOUTH
A country as vast as Ethiopia has something for all kinds of travellers. I spent my time in the North, visiting mostly historical and archaeological wonders. Further north, which I hope to revisit, are the majestic Ethiopian Highlands, fast gaining a reputation for being a trekker’s dream. Here, one can go on community treks that are led by local guides and villagers who own, operate and benefit from the tourism.
The treks range from strenuous mountain hikes to leisurely walks along the top of the plateaus.
The 136 sq km Simien National Park was one of the first sites to be designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1978. In it stands the country’s highest peak, Ras Dashen (also the fourth highest in Africa), at 4,550m and contains wildlife such as the endangered walia ibex (mountain goat) and the gelada baboon (bleeding heart baboon).
If the north is all about the country’s mountainside and historical landmarks, Southern Ethiopia is where you see the country’s cultural heritage and diversity through the indigenous Omo Valley tribes.
The population of 500,000 live mostly on the banks of the Omo river and the Lake Turkana basin in the dry season and move to the grasslands in the rainy season. There are more than a dozen ancient tribes that live in Africa’s Rift Valley and they all adhere to their ancient heritage, which is what makes the South truly unique.
Top things to do in Ethiopia
1. Try the staple Injera, a sourdough-risen flat bread whose taste and texture most closely resembles the Indian thosai. Made from teff flour, it is served with meat and vegetable stews. Ethiopian curry is also delicious, thick and spicy – a perfect accompaniment to the Injera bread.
2. Dance your night away Ethiopian-style. Ethiopians know how to have fun based on my visit to Yod Abyssinia, a “cultural” restaurant in Addis Ababa. It is the place tourists go to for a snapshot of Ethiopian culture and food.
3. Ethiopia is home to seven Unesco World Heritage sites. If you don’t have time to visit them all in one trip, my top choices are: Lalibela (the city and the monolithic churches); Simian National Park and the geological marvel known as the Danakil Depression, officially one of the hottest and driest areas on earth with average temperatures of above 35 deg C. It is at the lowest point in all of Africa and the second lowest in the world, after the Dead Sea, and contains active volcanoes, hot springs, lava lakes and salted basins, all lying below the sea level.
4. Forget about finding a Starbucks or Coffee Bean outlet in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians drink only their own coffee, which contributes to about 60 per cent of the country’s foreign income. Did you know that the arabica bean originates from Ethiopia?
5. If you want to shop in Addis Ababa, head for the famed Merkato. It’s chaotic, of course, but it’s an experience you are not likely to find anywhere else.