Ethiopia is a nation full of amazing contrasts. This country has all the elements a tourist looks for-historical, natural and cultural. The best way to tour this northeastern African nation is by road. Contrary to perception, Ethiopia’s roads are one of the finest on this continent, thanks to huge Chinese investment in the country a few years back. A drive on this high-quality tarmac surrounded by Ethiopia’s vast stretches of natural beauty was one of the best experiences I have had.
I landed in Addis Ababa on a lovely clear day and headed straight to meet Lucy. The fossilized skeleton of the earliest hominid was one of the many interesting relics to see at the Ethiopian National Museum. Addis Ababa houses the Imperial Palace, Grand Anwar Mosque and an impressive array of cathedrals; but I had a grand date with Ethiopia’s history, for which I had to visit the older cities that are still brimming with culture and architecture from all ages!
As we exited Addis Ababa, the Ethiopia tour guide told me to keep an eye out for tanks. Though surprised, my worries were swiftly laid to rest when we came across the first of them. These defunct war machines were actually burnt-out remnants of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, now used as climbing frames by local kids. As we went along, there was another surprise.
Even the most dilapidated roadside shack had an espresso machine! Thanks to Italian troops from the occupation of Ethiopia during the Second World War, coffee has become a national past time. Ethiopia has been home to some of the most exotic coffees and every café and restaurant in the cities have an extensive coffee menu.
Ethiopia is a treasure trove of historical treats; the most outstanding being the eleven monolithic rock-cut churches at Lalibela (originally known as Roha). They were constructed in the 12th century to represent Jerusalem and are still used as places of worship, along with being listed in the Ethiopia travel guides as the 8th most incredible historical site in the world by UNESCO.
On exiting Lalibela towards Aksum, just off the road is the Monastery of Abba Pantaleon that can only be visited by men. The approach to this monastery is a 15-meter high steep cliff; but once you reach the top, you’re in for a treat. Gaze at the stunning views and spend time with ancient Christian scriptures, which bring to notice that Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world.
Aksum, and for that matter, Ethiopia is renowned in Christendom for the Ark of the Covenant! I, however, learnt that long before the town of Aksum was established by the Queen of Sheba, there existed the settlement of Yeha. The towering ruins of the Yeha’s temples are, despite their age, in excellent condition and were well worth a visit.
Though every Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church houses a replica of the ark of the covenant, ask for the original and the enthusiastic Ethiopia tour guide will take you to a small chapel in the monastic complex of Mary of Zion in the heart of Aksum. The catch is that you’re not allowed inside the temple. But don’t be too disappointed; I got my money’s worth by visiting ancient tombs and other monuments that Aksum is home to.
A five-hour drive south-west of Aksum and we reached Gonder. This is where you can see the castles of Fasilides, Iyasu and Mentwab. Downtown Gonder is heavily dotted with colonial architecture; there are even a few Art Deco buildings from its Italian phase!
After a fulfilling historical and cultural dose, it was time for a visit to a place that I was in awe of but also looking forward to. The hottest place on earth, the Ethiopian-Eritrean border region of Afar is climactically an extremely hostile place. Strewn with volcanoes and salt lakes, this could easily be one of the most arresting natural sights of Africa. For centuries, Ethiopians have made the long trek to Danakil Depression and returned with slabs of salt collected from the sun-blasted earth. It is quite an experience to be among the orange sulphur and mineral salt formations or to see camels laden with salt slabs lining the scorched earth on their way back. Do not visit this unforgiving landscape by yourself; take an escort or go with a convoy.